Homeopathy seems to attract some kind of miracle worker. Elsewhere I have, for instance, reported the curious case of Prof Claudia Witt who published more than anyone on homeopathy in recent years without hardly ever arriving at a negative conclusion. Recently, I came across a researcher with an even better track record: Prof Michael Frass.
Wikipedia describes his achievements as follows: “Michael Frass studied medicine from 1972 to 1978 at the Medical University of Vienna followed by visits abroad at the Pasteur Institute, Paris and at the Porter Memorial Hospital (USA). Since March 2004 he directs the Outpatients Unit of Homeopathy for Malign Diseases at the Department Clinic for Internal of Medicine I at the Medical University of Vienna. Since 2005 Frass also works as a coordinator of the lecture series Homeopathy at the Medical University of Vienna. Beginning with the winter semester 2001/02 he is the coordinator of a lecture series Basics and practise of complementary medical methods at the Medical University of Vienna. From 2002 to 2005 he led the Ludwig Boltzmanm Institute of Homeopathy. Since 2005 Frass is president of the Institute for Homeopathic Research. Actually he works at the Division of Oncology at the Department of Medicine I in Vienna. He is First Chairman of the Scientific Society for Homeopathy (WissHom), founded in 2010, president of the Umbrella organization of Austrian Doctors for Holistic Medicine.”
He directs the WHAT? The Outpatients Unit of Homeopathy for Malign Diseases at the Department Clinic for Internal of Medicine I at the Medical University of Vienna? This is my former medical school, and I had no idea that such a unit even existed – but, of course, I left in 1993 for Exeter (a few months ago, I followed an invitation to give a lecture on homeopathy at the Medical University of Vienna ; sadly neither Prof Frass nor anyone of his team attended).
And what about the Scientific Society for Homeopathy? I am sure that the name of this organisation will make some people wonder. From the society’s website, we learn that “the intention of WissHom is to contribute to the progress of medicine and to the collective good. To this end, WissHom intents to further develop homeopathy both practically and theoretically. It will be WissHom’s task to breathe life into this committed objective.”
Breathing life into homeopathy seems exactly what Prof Frass does. He seems to have found his way to homeopathy relatively late in his career (the 1st Medline-listed article was published only in 2003) but he has nevertheless published many studies on this subject (I use the term ‘study’ here to describe both clinical, pre-clinical and basic research papers); in total, I found 12 such articles on Medline. They cover extremely diverse areas and a wide range of methodologies. Yet they all have one remarkable feature in common: they arrive at positive conclusions.
You find this hard to believe? Join the club!
But it is undeniably true, here are the conclusions (or the bit that comes close to a conclusion) from the Medline-listed abstracts (only the headings in capital letters are mine, and they simply depict the nature of the paper)
Results suggest that the global health status and subjective wellbeing of cancer patients improve significantly when adjunct classical homeopathic treatment is administered in addition to conventional therapy.
Based on the 2 cases, including 1 extreme situation, we suggest that adjunctive homeopathic treatment has a role in the treatment of acute Amanita phalloides-induced toxicity following mushroom poisoning. Additional studies may clarify a more precise dosing regimen, standardization, and better acceptance of homeopathic medicine in the intensive care setting.
Extended survival time in this sample of cancer patients with fatal prognosis but additive homeopathic treatment is interesting. However, findings are based on a small sample, and with only limited data available about patient and treatment characteristics. The relationship between homeopathic treatment and survival time requires prospective investigation in larger samples possibly using matched-pair control analysis or randomized trials.
The symptoms of patients undergoing homeopathic treatment were shown to improve substantially and conventional medication dosage could be substantially reduced. While the real-life effect assessed indicates that there is a potential for enhancing therapeutic measures and reducing healthcare cost, it does not allow to draw conclusions as to the efficacy of homeopathic treatment per se.
The data suggest that both drugs prepared in ethanolic solution are potent inhibitors of H. pylori induced gene expression.
Most of these clinical studies have been deemed to be high quality trials, according to the three most commonly referenced meta-analyses of homeopathic research. Basic in vitro experimental studies also provide evidence that the effects of homeopathy differ from placebo.
This study is based on 25 well documented reports of cases which responded well to treatment with Petroleum.
Animals treated with the standard test solution thyroxine 10(-30) metamorphosed more slowly than the control animals, ie the effect of the homeopathically prepared thyroxine was opposed to the usual physiological effect of molecular thyroxine.
Our report suggests that homeopathy may be applicable even for critically ill patients.
Our data suggest that homeopathic treatment may be a useful additional therapeutic measure with a long-term benefit for severely septic patients admitted to the intensive care unit. A constraint to wider application of this method is the limited number of trained homeopaths.
These data suggest that potentized (diluted and vigorously shaken) potassium dichromate may help to decrease the amount of stringy tracheal secretions in COPD patients.
These animals reacted to the homeopathically prepared thyroxine with a slowing down of metamorphosis, even when they had not been prestimulated with a molecular dose of the hormone. This effect was observed in all 3 laboratories and is consistent with the results of previous studies.
So am I!
How can homeopathy produce nothing but positive results in the hands of this researcher? How can it work in so many entirely different conditions? How is it possible that homeopathic remedies are better than placebo regardless of the methodology used? Why does homeopathy, in the hands of Prof Frass, not even once produce a result that disappoints the aspirations of homeopaths and its advocates? Why are these sensational results almost invariably published in very minor journals? Crucially, why has not one of the findings (as far as I can see) ever been independently reproduced?
I do not know the answers to these questions.
If anyone does, I would like to hear them.
Homeopathy has its fair share of lunes who are unable to make a reasonable case for it without telling overt falsehoods; we have seen some of then on this blog, for sure. Therefore I was encouraged to finally find a well-argued, rational defence of homeopathy. It comes from an unlikely source – Christian Boiron (CB) is the General Manager of the world’s largest manufacturer of homeopathics ‘BOIRON’ with a turn-over of more than 600 million Euros annually. Some would have thought he could be a trifle biased, but no – judge for yourself.
In a recent, short interview (unfortunately it is in French, so you have to trust my translations) CB rightly pointed out that “Il y a un Ku Klux Klan contre l’homéopathie” THERE IS A KU KLUX KLAN AGAINST HOMEOPATHY. About time that someone calls a spade a spade, I’d say. I think others have previously called those who doubt the miracle of homeopathy ‘fascists’ – but ‘KKK’ is much better, more to the point. Sceptics have indeed a long and infamous habit of stringing everyone who disagrees with their views up on a tree.
The interview refers to the report from the Australian NHMRC which showed that homeopathy is not effective and can even be dangerous. How can this be? Fortunately CB knows the answer: “…personne ne comprend rien”. The panel members were all ignorant! Thanks for clearing that up CB; were they also members of the KKK?
After all, homeopathy is 200 years old, it is now well-grounded in science and accepted throughout the world (“L’homéopathie, qui a 200 ans, évolue avec les connaissances de la science. La France l’a relancée dans un axe totalement scientifique et lui a donné une reconnaissance mondiale”) That surely needed to be said, and don’t you KKK members dare pointing out the occasional fallacy here! Because CB is the first to be critical (“Je suis le premier à être le plus critique”).
What about studies of homeopathy that fail to be as convincingly positive as CB might have hoped? “Quand on dit qu’il faut démontrer en médecine et que la médecine est une pratique scientifique ce sont deux idioties.” Yes, well said CB, the assumption that medicine should become scientific is indeed idiotic. Medicine is about individuals, not statistics; Hahnemann realised this, of course, and thus showed us the way to the future in health care.
And to finish this elating encounter with one of the brightest buttons in any homeopathic drawer: “On croit savoir énormément de choses alors qu’il y a beaucoup qu’on méconnait”. ONE THINKS ONE KNOWS A LOT BUT THERE IS PLENTY ONE MISUNDERSTANDS”
I think even those terrible KKK members amongst my readers might agree with CB here, particularly if this remark introspectively refers to himself.
***a note to homeopaths and their libel lawyers: this post is SATIRE
No, I kid you not!
This abstract was actually published in the leading chiro-journal. The authors include three professors from the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, Research, Toronto, Canada. Its title is impressive but made my alarm bells ring a bit:
A Randomized Pragmatic Clinical Trial of Chiropractic Care for Headaches With and Without a Self-Acupressure Pillow.
And the actual texts does not disappoint those looking for of pure pseudo-science:
The purpose of this study was to determine if the addition of a self-acupressure pillow (SAP) to typical chiropractic treatment results in significantly greater improvement in tension-type and cervicogenic headache sufferers.
A pragmatic randomized clinical trial was conducted in a chiropractic college teaching clinic. Thirty-four subjects, including tension-type and cervicogenic headache sufferers, 21 to 60 years of age, male or female, completed the study. Group A (n = 15) received typical chiropractic care only (manual therapy and exercises), and group B (n = 19) received typical chiropractic care with daily home use of the SAP. The intervention period was 4 weeks. The main outcome measure was headache frequency. Satisfaction and relief scores were obtained from subjects in the SAP group. Analysis of variance was used to analyze the intergroup comparisons.
Owing to failure of randomization to produce group equivalence on weekly headache frequency, analysis of covariance was performed showing a trend (P = .07) favoring the chiropractic-only group; however, this was not statistically significant. Group A obtained a 46% reduction of weekly headache frequency (t = 3.1, P = .002; d = 1.22). The number of subjects in group A achieving a reduction in headaches greater than 40% was 71%, while for group B, this was 28%. The mean benefit score (0-3) in group B of the use of the SAP was 1.2 (.86). The mean satisfaction rating of users of the SAP was 10.4 (2.7) out of 15 (63%).
This study suggests that chiropractic care may reduce frequency of headaches in patients with chronic tension-type and cervicogenic headache. The use of a self-acupressure pillow (Dr Zaxx device) may help those with headache and headache pain relief as well as producing moderately high satisfaction with use.
Where to begin?
Perhaps it is best, if I simply concentrated on the bizarre research question: is chiropractic care plus the largely uncontrolled use of an ‘acupressure cushion’ better than chiropractic care alone? To savour the lunacy of it, we need to consider that:
- chiropractic is not plausible;
- chiropractic care is not proven to be effective for headaches;
- acupressure is not plausible;
- acupressure is not proven to be effective;
- a self-administered acupressure cushion is also unproven and even less plausible;
This, I fear, renders the study one of the most nonsensical trials I have seen for a very long time. To make the bonanza in pseudo-science complete, the article is supplemented with a most bizarre conclusion about the effectiveness of chiropractic (which, of cause, cannot be examined in a trial of chiro vs chiro).
All this leads me to fear that:
- the best journal of chiropractic is rubbish;
- a professorship in a chiro school may not mean that the professor has the slightest idea about research methodology;
- chiropractors will try to squeeze a conclusion that is favourable for their trade even out of a dead horse.
We could have expected it, couldn’t we? With so much homeopathy in the press lately, Dr Dixon (we have seen him on this blog before, for instance here, here and here) had to comment. His article in yesterday’s NURSING IN PRACTICE is far too perfect to abbreviate it; I just have to cite it in full (only the reference numbers are mine and refer to my comments below).
HERE WE GO
Should homeopathy be blacklisted in general practice?
I have not prescribed them myself but I know of many GPs and patients who find homeopathic preparations helpful, especially in clinical areas where there is no satisfactory conventional treatment . They are cheap and entirely safe , which cannot always be said of conventional treatment . Is the concern about cost? That is implausible as GP prescriptions cost a mere £100,000 per annum, approximately £10 per UK General Practice but effectively less as some patients will be paying for them and they may reduce other prescriptions or medical costs . Is it about evidence?  Possibly, and that is because the necessary pragmatic trials on comparative cost effectiveness have never been done . Homeopathy thus joins the frequently quoted 25% of general practice activity that has an insufficient evidence base… So, why not do the research rather than single out homeopathy for blacklisting ? Apparently, because it irritates a powerful fraternity of “scientists”  with a narrow biomedical perspective on health and healing, who feel the need to impose their atheism  on others. They seem opposed to “patient-centred medicine” which factors in the mindset, culture, history, wishes and hopes of each patient, and a wider concept of science that might take account of them . Led by the World Health Organization, many countries are examining the appropriate role of complementary and traditional medicine (CAM). Indian Prime Minister Modi has created the first minister for medicine in this area (called AYUSH with the “H” standing for homeopathy). Australia, whose government and medical deans (unlike the UK ) are not intimidated by this breed of scientific fundamentalism, has invested money in research, regulated its herbal  practitioners and created important trade links with China in this area . Meanwhile the UK invests 0% of its research budget on CAM and appears to have a closed mind . General practice is at its best a subtle and complex blend of science and art combined in a heady mixture, which recognises personal belief and perspective and respects differences . Blacklisting homeopathy would be the thin edge of the wedge. It would be a mean-minded act of outside interference by many who do not treat patients themselves, denying patient choice and signifying a new age of intolerance and interference . It is a threat to the autonomy of general practice that should concern every GP and patient whatever their views on homeopathy .
About the Author
Chairman of the NHS Alliance and a GP
Mike Dixon, chairman of the NHS Alliance and a GP at College Surgery in Cullompton, Devon and a Royal College of General Practitioners presidential candidate.
END OF QUOTE AND BEGINNING OF MY DELIBERATELY BRIEF COMMENTS
- Whenever this argument comes up, people fail to cite an example. Are they afraid that we would point out what can be done for such a patient other than prescribing placebos?
- Actually, they are extremely expensive considering that they are just lactose or water. And the claim that homeopathy is safe merely displays an embarrassing lack of knowledge; see the many posts on this blog that deal with this issue.
- Classical ‘tu quoque’ fallacy; display of the ignorance of the risk/benefit concept for judging the value of medical interventions.
- Display of ignorance regarding the actual evidence, see here, for instance.
- Yes, it’s the evidence but also it’s the biological implausibility and the fact that disregarding it undermines rationality in general.
- Pure ignorance again, see my point 4.
- Are ~ 300 clinical trials and about 100 systematic reviews not enough? How much more money needs to be wasted?
- It seems that Dixon has a problem with science and those who pursue it to improve future health care for the benefit of patients.
- Does Dixon admit that homeopathy is a religion?
- Patient-centred medicine which factors in the mindset, culture, history, wishes and hopes of each patient, and a wider concept of science that might take account of them – does Dixon not know that all good medicine fits this description, but homeopathy certainly does not?
- Every one with an IQ above 50 knows by now that herbal is not homeopathic; is Dixon the exception?
- What about the Australian report which concluded that “Homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are chronic, serious, or could become serious. People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner. Those who use homeopathy should tell their health practitioner and should keep taking any prescribed treatments.”
- This is simply not true, and Dixon should know it.
- No reason to include disproven nonsense like homeopathy.
- Intolerance is on Dixon’s side, I think. Improving health care by abandoning disproven therapies in favour of evidence-based treatments is no interference, it’s progress.
- This can only be true, if we misunderstand autonomy as arbitrariness without rules, checks, ethics and controls. Good general practice has, like all medicine, be in the best interest of patients. An obsolete, expensive, unsafe, ineffective and implausible treatment is clearly not.
Members of the Section of Medical Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) voted unanimously on 9 November 2015 for supporting the earlier proposal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Swedish statement requested that the homeopathic remedies should go through the same efficacy trials as normal drugs should.
The Hungarian statement refers to various recent scientific statements for example to the study of the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council that analysed 175 publications and concluded that there was no reasonable scientific proof for the efficacy of homeopathy for any health conditions. The HAS also refers to the European Academies Science Advisory Council that is allegedly considering an investigation among the academies of the UN countries about this topic. The statement points out that another Hungarian scientific body (Health Science Committee – Egészségügyi Tudományos Tanács) had made a similar statement already in 1991 and opposed using and registering those drugs for that efficacy had not been proved and that had not gone through adequate research procedures.
József Mandl – biochemist, member of HAS, president of Health Science Committee said: “The Australian and Swedish statements had raised the interest of the Hungarian scientific community and now members of the Medical Sciences Section of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences voted unanimously to join the Swedish initiation… Science has well defined, rigorous methods and systems. Homeopathy can’t be fitted to these. Homeopathic remedies don’t meet the criteria of evidence based medicine. There might be various hypotheses, theories, but everything should be proved. This is what science means and this is what we would like to highlight now.”
Well said, indeed!
It is high time that the authorities concede that there can be only one standard in medicine regulation. The ‘free ride’ homeopathy has had for 200 years must now come to an end.
This notion also seems to be increasingly supported by the legal profession. An Australian lawyer just published this abstract:
The 2010 report of the United Kingdom Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons and the 2015 report of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council have overtaken in significance the uncritical Swiss report of 2012 and have gone a long way to changing the environment of tolerance toward proselytising claims of efficacy in respect of homeopathy. The inquiry being undertaken in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration during 2015 may accelerate this trend. An outcome of the reports and inquiries has been a series of decisions from advertising regulators and by courts rejecting medically unjustifiable claims in respect of the efficacy of homeopathy. Class actions have also been initiated in North America against manufacturers of homeopathic products. The changing legal and regulatory environment is generating an increasingly scientifically marginalised existence for homeopathy. That new environment is starting to provide effective inhibition of assertions on behalf of homeopathy and other health modalities whose claims to therapeutic efficacy cannot be justified by reference to the principles of evidence-based health care. This has the potential to reduce the financial support that is provided by insurers and governments toward homeopathy and to result in serious liability exposure for practitioners, manufacturers and those who purvey homeopathic products, potentially including pharmacists. In addition, it may give a fillip to a form of regulation of homeopaths if law reform to regulate unregistered health practitioners gathers momentum, as is taking place in Australia.
As though this is not enough, today it was reported that the UK NHS is considering to blacklist homeopathic remedies:
The Good Thinking Society has been campaigning for homeopathy to be added to the NHS blacklist – known formally as Schedule 1 – of drugs that cannot be prescribed by GPs. Drugs can be blacklisted if there are cheaper alternatives or if the medicine is not effective. After the Good Thinking Society threatened to take their case to the courts, Department of Health legal advisers replied in emails that ministers had “decided to conduct a consultation”. Officials have now confirmed this will take place in 2016.
It seems to me that the position of homeopathy as a form of health care is less and less tenable. Its place is in the history books. To satisfy the need for consumer/patient choice, the remedies should be moved to the confectionary shelves of the supermarkets.
Having just finished reading an ‘satirical esothriller’ entitled ‘VIER FRAUEN UND EIN SCHARLATAN’ (it’s a good book but it’s in German, I’m afraid), I have been thinking more than usual about charlatans. A charlatan is defined as a person who falsely pretends to know or be something in order to deceive people. In the book, the charlatan character is deliberately exaggerated as a dishonest, immoral crook. I have met such people; in fact, I have met plenty of such people in alternative medicine. But I have to admit that, in my experience, there are other charlatans too; in particular, I am talking of ‘honest’ quacks who pretend to know while also being utterly convinced to know.
Come to think of the categories of charlatans, I think the matter is really quite simple: as far as I can see, in alternative medicine, there are essentially just two types.
This type of charlatan is the one we think of first when we mention the term. He (usually it’s a male) has a range of remarkable features:
- he is dishonest;
- he is entirely rational;
- he knows about evidence and has prepared all the necessary pseudo-arguments to belittle science vis a vis his followers;
- he is only interested in himself;
- he is immoral;
- he wants to make money;
- he employs all the means available to achieve his aims, including PR, advertising, branding, merchandising etc.
- he does not believe in his ‘message’;
- he systematically studies and exploits his target group;
- he does not live by his own rules;
- when he is implicated in harming a patient, he consults his lawyers;
- he is cynical;
- his ‘charisma’, if he has any, is well-studied and extensively rehearsed;
- when challenged, he sues.
This type is very different from the crook and would be deeply shocked by the crook’s behaviour and attitude. She (often it is a female) can be described as follows:
- she is convinced to be profoundly honest;
- she is deluded, often to the point of madness;
- she ignores the evidence totally and argues that science is just one of several ways of knowing;
- she feels altruistic;
- she thinks she is on the moral high ground;
- she is not primarily out to make money and might even offer her services for free;
- she does not seek fame;
- she is religiously convinced of the correctness of her message and wants to save mankind through it;
- her message is for everyone;
- she strictly adheres to her own gospel and thinks that those who don’t are traitors;
- when she is implicated in causing harm, she consults her ueber-guru;
- she abhors cynicism;
- her charisma, if she has any, is real and a powerful tool for convincing followers;
- when challenged, she feels hurt and misunderstood.
As I indicated already, this is a SIMPLE classification. Between the two extremes, there are all shades of grey. In fact, it is a continuous spectrum.
Why should any of this be important?
Charlatans of both types cause immeasurable harm, and it is impossible to decide which type is more dangerous. Our aim must be to prevent or minimise the harm they do. I think, this aim can best be pursued, if we know who we are dealing with. Identifying where precisely on the above scale a particular charlatan or quack is situated, might help in the prevention of harm.
The aim of this study was to evaluate clinical effectiveness of Alexander Technique lessons or acupuncture versus usual care for persons with chronic, nonspecific neck pain.
Patients with neck pain lasting at least 3 months, a score of at least 28% on the Northwick Park Questionnaire (NPQ) for neck pain and associated disability, and no serious underlying pathology were randomised to receive 12 acupuncture sessions or 20 one-to-one Alexander lessons (both 600 minutes total) plus usual care versus usual care alone. The NPQ score at 0, 3, 6, and 12 months (primary end point) and Chronic Pain Self-Efficacy Scale score, quality of life, and adverse events (secondary outcomes) served as outcome measures. 517 patients were recruited. Their median duration of neck pain was 6 years. Mean attendance was 10 acupuncture sessions and 14 Alexander lessons. Between-group reductions in NPQ score at 12 months versus usual care were 3.92 percentage points for acupuncture (95% CI, 0.97 to 6.87 percentage points) (P = 0.009) and 3.79 percentage points for Alexander lessons (CI, 0.91 to 6.66 percentage points) (P = 0.010). The 12-month reductions in NPQ score from baseline were 32% for acupuncture and 31% for Alexander lessons. Participant self-efficacy improved for both interventions versus usual care at 6 months (P < 0.001) and was significantly associated (P < 0.001) with 12-month NPQ score reductions (acupuncture, 3.34 percentage points [CI, 2.31 to 4.38 percentage points]; Alexander lessons, 3.33 percentage points [CI, 2.22 to 4.44 percentage points]). No reported serious adverse events were considered probably or definitely related to either intervention.
The authors drew the following conclusions: acupuncture sessions and Alexander Technique lessons both led to significant reductions in neck pain and associated disability compared with usual care at 12 months. Enhanced self-efficacy may partially explain why longer-term benefits were sustained.
Where to begin? There is much to be criticised about this study!
For starters, the conclusions are factually wrong. They should read “acupuncture sessions plus usual care and Alexander Technique lessons plus usual care both led to significant reductions in neck pain and associated disability compared with usual care at 12 months. Enhanced self-efficacy may partially explain why longer-term benefits were sustained.
On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed the ‘A+B versus B’ study design and the fact that it cannot provide information about cause and effect because it fails to control for placebo effects and the extra attention, time and empathy (for instance here and here). I suspect that this is the reason why it is so very popular in alternative medicine. It can make ineffective therapies appear to be effective.
Another point is a more clinical concern. Neck pain is not a disease, it is a symptom. In medicine we should, whenever possible, try to treat the cause of the underlying condition and not the symptom. Acupuncture is at best a symptomatic treatment. Usual care is often not very effective because we normally fail to see the cause of neck pain. In my view, alternative treatments should either be tested against placebo or sham interventions or against optimal care.
What is optimal care for nonspecific neck pain? As its causes are often unclear and usually multifactorial, the optimal treatment needs to be multifactorial (one could also call it holistic) as well. The causes often range from poor ergometric conditions at work to muscular tension, stress, psychological problems etc. Thus optimal care would be a team work tailor-made for each patient possibly including physiotherapists, pain specialists, clinical psychologists, orthopaedic surgeons etc.
My points here are:
- neither acupuncture nor Alexander technique take account of this complexity,
- they claim to be holistic but, in fact, this turns out to be merely a good sales-slogan,
- usual care is usually no good,
- if pragmatic trials using the ‘A+B versus B’ design make any sense at all, they should employ not usual care but optimal care for the control group.
In the end, we are left with a study that looks fairly rigorous at first sight, but that really tells us next to nothing (except that dedicating 600 minutes to patients in pain is not without effect). I am truly surprised that a top journal like the Annals of Internal Medicine decided to publish it.
Anyone who has read ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’ will know that I stood up for science more than once in my life. In fact, I strongly believe that this is what scientists ought to do, and I frequently get irritated to see that some of my colleagues seem to disagree [if not even we scientists can stick our necks out for science, how can we expect others to do it?]. Being thus convinced, I surprised myself recently when I was invited to do my bid for science – and declined to comply. Here is the story:
On 16 October, I received the following invitation by email out of the blue:
Hi Dr. Ernst,
My name is John Jackson. I am Executive Director of the Adolph Coors Foundation in Denver, the charitable arm of the Coors family (not the brewery).
I would like to invite your participation in a debate on integrative medicine which will be held Sunday evening, March 20, 2016, at the Hyatt Regency in Denver. The debate will be the keynote event of our Pioneers in Health conference. Your debate partner will be Dr. Andrew Weil. As our conference precedes Dr. Weil’s annual Nutrition and Health Conference, we expect excellent attendance of 700-800, possibly more.
The debate topic: “Fad or the Future: Will Integrative Medicine Play a Growing Role in the Future of Health Care?”
If you are willing to join us, we plan the following debate format: Opening statements with responses by each of you, questions put to each other, and responses by each of you to pre-submitted questions from the audience and, finally, closing statements. (Audience participation will be limited to questions submitted via an app, not by microphone.) We intend to invite a prominent journalist/business leader to moderate. Dr. Weil has recommended CNN’s health reporter but this has not been confirmed.
I have read numerous articles you have authored on this website and feel you would offer an excellent counterpoint to Dr. Weil. Indeed, Dr. Weil also feels you would be an ideal debate partner. I have also read your ground rules for debate (on this website). Dr. Weil and our foundation share your insistence on respect and politeness, whether it’s a blog post or a public debate.
In the interest of full disclosure, our foundation funds several institutions which are studying various “alternative” practices, including the recent study of the use of electro-acupuncture for hypertension on which you and others have commented. We have also funded a project involving Dr. Weil and the University of Arizona. You can read more about our interest in integrative medicine and who we fund at www.coorsfoundation.org.
Of course, if you agree to participate, we would cover your travel, meals and lodging expenses and are willing to negotiate a reasonable honoraria.
If you would like to discuss this further by phone, please feel free to give me a call. I can be reached in Denver at 303-388-1636.
Thank you, Dr. Ernst. I look forward to your response.
Adolph Coors Foundation
I have to admit, I was flattered and tempted in equal measure. This could be a great occasion to reach a large US audience and get a few important points across. But, at the same time, I had my doubts, and these doubts grew faster by the minute. There were several hints in this seemingly innocent email to suggest that there was more to this story than a straight forward invitation. Was this a set-up to give integrative medicine more credibility than it deserves?
Being uncertain, I asked several American friends for advice. They all seemed horrified and very strongly advised me not to accept the invitation. But I was still not entirely convinced – even if these people are a bit strange, even if it is a set-up, even if I do not ‘win’ the debate, it might be an interesting experience and I might learn (and earn!) something.
I clearly needed to find out more. I know Andrew Weil, of course, and I had seen him twice before in similar public debates. So I had no illusions that his charisma and slick rhetoric, combined with an audience full of admirers, would win the day. But I did not necessarily mind all that much; it could still be an occasion to make my arguments known and it might turn out to be a fascinating experience.
However, I certainly did not want to lend, through my presence, undue credibility to people or organisations who don’t deserve it. So, what about the organisers? What do the Adolph Coors Foundation stand for, and who are they?
One of my US friends alerted me to an eye-opening website. Other websites were even less complimentary and mentioned homophobic, racist, and anti-labor practices in relation to the funders. This made up my mind, and I wrote the following response to Jackson’s invitation:
Dear Mr Jackson,
as you may know, I do like a challenge. Therefore I was very tempted to accept your offer to debate with Andrew.
On second thought, however, I developed doubts that the event outlined in your email can be a fair debate of the issues around integrative medicine. The audience gathered for Andrew’s conference would be entirely on the side of their ‘guru’, and even the moderator would be Andrew’s choice. It is notoriously problematic to discuss scientific evidence with quasi-religious believers pretending facts were a matter of opinion.
I fear that a life debate in Denver would be akin to a discussion between an evolutionary scientist and a crowd of rampant creationists.
Since you know my blog, I suggest we conduct such a debate in writing there. This would have the advantage of a much wider, more diverse audience and provide the opportunity to check the evidence for any claims made by the discussants.
Meanwhile, I thank you for this invitation but, unless you can convince me that my fears are unfounded, I have to decline.
I was not at all sure whether to expect a response. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised that, on 25 October, the following email reached me:
Thank you for your response to our invitation. I apologize for the tardy reply. I have been travelling and generally avoid using my iPhone to respond to important emails. I have been burned once-too-often by the iPhone’s embarrassing auto-INcorrections.
Your hesitation about participating in the debate is totally understandable and, frankly, I would have been surprised if you had NOT asked for more detail.
Dr. Weil certainly does have a substantial following of loyal and passionate followers. And there will be a healthy contingent of them in the audience. Dr. Weil’s team estimates that 200-300 of those attending his Nutrition and Health Conference will also attend our conference, including the debate. That means the remaining attendees (400-500) will be those who sign up through our public portal which will be launched in a few weeks. Our marketing is targeting Colorado’s health community, including medical providers. We also expect our conference cosponsor, Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF), to attract attendees through their outreach efforts. AFPF is a grassroots organization that has virtually nothing to do with any kind of medicine, conventional or integrative. AFPF’s interest is promoting innovations in the delivery of health care (more health care choice) which will be the focus of a panel earlier in the day. For what it is worth, you are more than welcome to encourage your readers to attend. We plan to keep the conference fee very low (somewhere between $25 and $50), a figure that does not even cover the food and beverage costs. So, while I cannot guarantee applause for your debate points, I believe you will find our audience open to a wide range of perspectives on the future of integrative medicine.
With regard to the debate format and moderator, we believe the format is conducive to a healthy exchange of ideas. You both make opening statements, you both respond to each other’s opening statements, you ask each other questions, you both answer questions from the moderator and the audience and you both will be given equal time to offer closing statements. Our foundation — not Dr. Weil — will select the moderator. He recommended a health writer at CNN although he has not provided a specific name. If you want to suggest a name, please feel free. We may or may not choose a moderator that either of you recommend.
Long story short, the Coors Foundation shares your interest in having a robust debate on this topic. That is exactly why we tendered the invitation to you. We hope that you will reconsider your initial declination. Since we are nearing the date at which we will launch our registration portal and agenda, we respectfully request a response at your earliest possible convenience. If we have not heard from you by Wednesday, October 28, we will assume your initial decision stands and will extend the invitation to our second choice.
Thank you Dr. Ernst. We look forward to your reply.
Adolph Coors Foundation
I found it impossible to be convinced by Jackson’s arguments; on the contrary, some of my suspicions were confirmed, and I did a little further research – this time on the ‘Americans for Prosperity Foundation’. I found numerous websites about them and even a Wikipedia page. What I learnt in the course of my inquiries made my alarm bells ring loud and clear. I decided to sleep over it and then sent this email as my final response:
Dear Mr Jackson,
I am afraid your second email did not manage to change my mind.
It was important for me to learn about the co-sponsor of the event. I did some research on both your and the co-sponsoring organisations and found that I share virtually none of their views. I am reluctant to give credibility through my presence in Denver to two prominent right wing lobby groups.
Furthermore I am not at all convinced that the event is designed to generate a balanced debate. On the contrary, by your description of it, I might even fear for my personal safety after presenting facts which contradict or deride the opinions of large parts of the audience, the organisers and Dr Weil.
Lastly I am still convinced that factual issues around integrative medicine cannot be debated fruitfully by pretending they are merely matters of opinion. A debate in writing, where all the arguments can be checked for their evidential basis, would surely be much preferable. I find it regrettable that you do not even comment on my offer to conduct such a debate on my blog. The offer, however, still stands.
I thank you again for inviting me. I do like to stand up for science but, in this particular instance, I fear the costs would be too high.
So far, I have not had a reply, and I do not expect to receive one soon.
The whole affair is little more than a triviality, of course. Yet it raises at least two important questions, I think:
- Should we stand up for science wherever we can, or is the price occasionally simply too high?
- What are these mysterious links between alternative medicine in the US and the far right?
I would be most interested to hear your views.
I am probably more used to nonsensical statements by promoters of alternative medicine than the average person. But the ‘ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE ZONE’ just broke my BS-meter. Here are a few samples from their most remarkable website, all relating to homeopathy:
There has always been a debate whether allopathic treatment methods of the modern age are more beneficial or are the natural homeopathic treatment ways more reliable. The goal of healing the sick is the same in both these groups of treatment, but there is a strong contrast in the methods use, the ideology behind the treatment and the detailed theories. The following is a detailed comparison between homeopathy and Allopathy for those who wish to pick between the two:
Allopathic practitioners aim to target that part of the body that has been affected by a problem or disease and they do so by identifying the causing agent. On the other hand, in Homeopathy, doctors believe that emotional stress or psychological reasons make the body more susceptible to diseases and use more of a holistic approach of treatment.
Allopathic doctors make use of those medications which are produced by pharma companies or are man-made. On the other hand, Homeopathy uses natural supplements and cures such as herbs, dietary changes and other such ways to cure a disease. Allopathic doctors use an aggressive approach whereas homeopathic doctors consider one dose enough to treat a disease.
While on one hand, allopathic doctors consider surgeries to be very important for removal of tumors etc. or correcting problems inside the body, Homeopathic doctors almost never use surgery as a treatment method. Only when certain tissue in the body has become seriously damaged they practice this technique.
Allopathic surgeons heavily rely on surgical procedures in case of serious diseases which cannot be cured by medicines or any other approach. Homeopathic doctors try to treat each and every condition with a natural method or by recommending strong dietary changes.
Homeopathy is basically based on beliefs of German Physician Samuel Hahnemann whereas Allopathic system of treatment or cure of diseases is based on the principles of the ancient Greeks, for example Hippocrates. Allopathic is considered to be regular medicine in many countries such as US but Homeopathy is argued to be a natural and holistic way of cure.
Both these schools of medicine consider the other to be non-beneficial. Homeopathy thinks that allopathic medicines tend to make people even sicker in the long run whereas Allopathy doctors believe that Homeopathy only uses Placebo as its mechanism to cure people. Supporters of both schools are often seen defending their preferred method of treatment.
The ‘ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE ZONE’ also does not shy away from giving concrete medical advice on their website. Two examples will have to suffice:
HOMEOPATHY FOR SHINGLES
Compare to anti-viral medicines, homeopathy has proved more effective for shingles and chicken pox. It offers rapid and successful approach in treating this infection. People with weak immune system are more prone to get shingles. Homeopathy medicines influence the immune system efficiently from within and improve body’s healing capacity. The homeopathy medicines are also capable of defusing pain, discomfort in body due to shingle. It also refrain shingles from spreading.
HOMEOPATHY FOR PILES
The homeopathic treatment is considered much better than surgery because it corrects the problem from the root which is not the case in surgery. Homeopathy is considered very useful in the early cases of piles and can help in complete healing. However as the problem becomes complex, it can only help in the healing of the symptoms.
Both articles finish by giving a list of homeopathic remedies that are recommended for the two conditions.
So there we have it!
My BS-meter has just broken.
Who can I sue?
The ‘INTERNATIONAL CHIROPRACTIC PEDIATRIC ASSOCIATION’ (ICPA) is, according to their website, ‘a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance chiropractic by establishing evidence informed practice, supporting excellence in professional skills and delivering educational resources to the public. It fulfills this mission by engaging and serving family chiropractors worldwide through research, training and public education.’
It fulfils its mission by, amongst other things, tweeting links to other pro-chiropractic activities. It is via such a tweet that I recently found the Pathways to Family Wellness (PFW). This is a quarterly print and digital magazine whose mission is to support you and your family’s quest for wellness.
This sounds exciting, I thought, and decided to have a closer look. I found that, according to its website, the magazine ‘collaborates with consciousness leaders, cutting-edge scientists and researchers, families on their conscious path, holistic practitioners and dynamic non-profit organizations to bring the most current insights into wellness to our readers.’
The Executive Editor and Publisher of PFW is Dr. Jeanne Ohm. She has ‘practiced family wellness care since 1981 with her husband, Dr. Tom. They have six children who were all born at home and are living the chiropractic family wellness lifestyle. Ohm is an instructor, author, and innovator. Her passion is: training DC’s with specific techniques for care in pregnancy, birth & infancy, forming national alliances for chiropractors with like-minded perinatal practitioners, empowering mothers to make informed choices, and offering pertinent patient educational materials.’
My suspicion that this is an outlet of chiropractic nonsense is confirmed as I read an article by Bobby Doscher, D.C., N.D. on the subject of chiropractic treatment for children with neurological problems. The article itself is merely promotional and therefore largely irrelevant. But one short passage is interesting nevertheless, I thought:
Chiropractic Based on Scientific Fact
Since its beginning, chiropractic has been based on the scientific fact that the nervous system controls the function of every cell, tissue, organ and system of your body. While the brain is protected by the skull, the spinal cord is more vulnerable, covered by 24 moving vertebrae. When these bones lose their normal motion or position, they can irritate the nervous system. This disrupts the function of the tissues or organs these nerves control; this is called vertebral subluxation complex.
I thought this was as revealing as it was hilarious. Since such nonsensical notions are ubiquitous in the chiropractic literature, I am tempted to conclude that most chiropractors believe this sort of thing themselves. This makes them perhaps more honest but also more of a threat: sincere conviction renders a quack not less but more dangerous.