MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

pseudo-science

It was 20 years ago today that I started my job as ‘Professor of Complementary Medicine’ at the University of Exeter and became a full-time researcher of all matters related to alternative medicine. One issue that was discussed endlessly during these early days was the question whether alternative medicine can be investigated scientifically. There were many vociferous proponents of the view that it was too subtle, too individualised, too special for that and that it defied science in principle. Alternative medicine, they claimed, needed an alternative to science to be validated. I spent my time arguing the opposite, of course, and today there finally seems to be a consensus that alternative medicine can and should be submitted to scientific tests much like any other branch of health care.

Looking back at those debates, I think it is rather obvious why apologists of alternative medicine were so vehement about opposing scientific investigations: they suspected, perhaps even knew, that the results of such research would be mostly negative. Once the anti-scientists saw that they were fighting a lost battle, they changed their tune and adopted science – well sort of: they became pseudo-scientists (‘if you cannot beat them, join them’). Their aim was to prevent disaster, namely the documentation of alternative medicine’s uselessness by scientists. Meanwhile many of these ‘anti-scientists turned pseudo-scientists’ have made rather surprising careers out of their cunning role-change; professorships at respectable universities have mushroomed. Yes, pseudo-scientists have splendid prospects these days in the realm of alternative medicine.

The term ‘pseudo-scientist’ as I understand it describes a person who thinks he/she knows the truth about his/her subject well before he/she has done the actual research. A pseudo-scientist is keen to understand the rules of science in order to corrupt science; he/she aims at using the tools of science not to test his/her assumptions and hypotheses, but to prove that his/her preconceived ideas were correct.

So, how does one become a top pseudo-scientist? During the last 20 years, I have observed some of the careers with interest and think I know how it is done. Here are nine lessons which, if followed rigorously, will lead to success (… oh yes, in case I again have someone thick enough to complain about me misleading my readers: THIS POST IS SLIGHTLY TONGUE IN CHEEK).

  1. Throw yourself into qualitative research. For instance, focus groups are a safe bet. This type of pseudo-research is not really difficult to do: you assemble about 5 -10 people, let them express their opinions, record them, extract from the diversity of views what you recognise as your own opinion and call it a ‘common theme’, write the whole thing up, and – BINGO! – you have a publication. The beauty of this approach is manifold: 1) you can repeat this exercise ad nauseam until your publication list is of respectable length; there are plenty of alternative medicine journals who will hurry to publish your pseudo-research; 2) you can manipulate your findings at will, for instance, by selecting your sample (if you recruit people outside a health food shop, for instance, and direct your group wisely, you will find everything alternative medicine journals love to print); 3) you will never produce a paper that displeases the likes of Prince Charles (this is more important than you may think: even pseudo-science needs a sponsor [or would that be a pseudo-sponsor?]).
  2. Conduct surveys. These are very popular and highly respected/publishable projects in alternative medicine – and they are almost as quick and easy as focus groups. Do not get deterred by the fact that thousands of very similar investigations are already available. If, for instance, there already is one describing the alternative medicine usage by leg-amputated police-men in North Devon, and you nevertheless feel the urge of going into this area, you can safely follow your instinct: do a survey of leg-amputated police men in North Devon with a medical history of diabetes. There are no limits, and as long as you conclude that your participants used a lot of alternative medicine, were very satisfied with it, did not experience any adverse effects, thought it was value for money, and would recommend it to their neighbour, you have secured another publication in an alternative medicine journal.
  3. If, for some reason, this should not appeal to you, how about taking a sociological, anthropological or psychological approach? How about studying, for example, the differences in worldviews, the different belief systems, the different ways of knowing, the different concepts about illness, the different expectations, the unique spiritual dimensions, the amazing views on holism – all in different cultures, settings or countries? Invariably, you will, of course, conclude that one truth is at least as good as the next. This will make you popular with all the post-modernists who use alternative medicine as a playground for getting a few publications out. This approach will allow you to travel extensively and generally have a good time. Your papers might not win you a Nobel prize, but one cannot have everything.
  4. It could well be that, at one stage, your boss has a serious talk with you demanding that you start doing what (in his narrow mind) constitutes ‘real science’. He might be keen to get some brownie-points at the next RAE and could thus want you to actually test alternative treatments in terms of their safety and efficacy. Do not despair! Even then, there are plenty of possibilities to remain true to your pseudo-scientific principles. By now you are good at running surveys, and you could, for instance, take up your boss’ suggestion of studying the safety of your favourite alternative medicine with a survey of its users. You simply evaluate their experiences and opinions regarding adverse effects. But be careful, you are on somewhat thinner ice here; you don’t want to upset anyone by generating alarming findings. Make sure your sample is small enough for a false negative result, and that all participants are well-pleased with their alternative medicine. This might be merely a question of selecting your patients cleverly. The main thing is that your conclusion is positive. If you want to go the extra pseudo-scientific mile, mention in the discussion of your paper that your participants all felt that conventional drugs were very harmful.
  5. If your boss insists you tackle the daunting issue of therapeutic efficacy, there is no reason to give up pseudo-science either. You can always find patients who happened to have recovered spectacularly well from a life-threatening disease after receiving your favourite form of alternative medicine. Once you have identified such a person, you write up her experience in much detail and call it a ‘case report’. It requires a little skill to brush over the fact that the patient also had lots of conventional treatments, or that her diagnosis was assumed but never properly verified. As a pseudo-scientist, you will have to learn how to discretely make such irritating details vanish so that, in the final paper, they are no longer recognisable. Once you are familiar with this methodology, you can try to find a couple more such cases and publish them as a ‘best case series’ – I can guarantee that you will be all other pseudo-scientists’ hero!
  6. Your boss might point out, after you have published half a dozen such articles, that single cases are not really very conclusive. The antidote to this argument is simple: you do a large case series along the same lines. Here you can even show off your excellent statistical skills by calculating the statistical significance of the difference between the severity of the condition before the treatment and the one after it. As long as you show marked improvements, ignore all the many other factors involved in the outcome and conclude that these changes are undeniably the result of the treatment, you will be able to publish your paper without problems.
  7. As your boss seems to be obsessed with the RAE and all that, he might one day insist you conduct what he narrow-mindedly calls a ‘proper’ study; in other words, you might be forced to bite the bullet and learn how to plan and run an RCT. As your particular alternative therapy is not really effective, this could lead to serious embarrassment in form of a negative result, something that must be avoided at all cost. I therefore recommend you join for a few months a research group that has a proven track record in doing RCTs of utterly useless treatments without ever failing to conclude that it is highly effective. There are several of those units both in the UK and elsewhere, and their expertise is remarkable. They will teach you how to incorporate all the right design features into your study without there being the slightest risk of generating a negative result. A particularly popular solution is to conduct what they call a ‘pragmatic’ trial, I suggest you focus on this splendid innovation that never fails to produce anything but cheerfully positive findings.
  8. It is hardly possible that this strategy fails – but once every blue moon, all precautions turn out to be in vain, and even the most cunningly designed study of your bogus therapy might deliver a negative result. This is a challenge to any pseudo-scientist, but you can master it, provided you don’t lose your head. In such a rare case I recommend to run as many different statistical tests as you can find; chances are that one of them will nevertheless produce something vaguely positive. If even this method fails (and it hardly ever does), you can always home in on the fact that, in your efficacy study of your bogus treatment, not a single patient died. Who would be able to doubt that this is a positive outcome? Stress it clearly, select it as the main feature of your conclusions, and thus make the more disappointing findings disappear.
  9. Now that you are a fully-fledged pseudo-scientist who has produced one misleading or false positive result after the next, you may want a ‘proper’ confirmatory study of your pet-therapy. For this purpose run the same RCT over again, and again, and again. Eventually you want a meta-analysis of all RCTs ever published. As you are the only person who ever conducted studies on the bogus treatment in question, this should be quite easy: you pool the data of all your trials and, bob’s your uncle: a nice little summary of the totality of the data that shows beyond doubt that your therapy works. Now even your narrow-minded boss will be impressed.

These nine lessons can and should be modified to suit your particular situation, of course. Nothing here is written in stone. The one skill any pseudo-scientist must have is flexibility.

Every now and then, some smart arse is bound to attack you and claim that this is not rigorous science, that independent replications are required, that you are biased etc. etc. blah, blah, blah. Do not panic: either you ignore that person completely, or (in case there is a whole gang of nasty sceptics after you) you might just point out that:

  • your work follows a new paradigm; the one of your critics is now obsolete,
  • your detractors fail to understand the complexity of the subject and their comments merely reveal their ridiculous incompetence,
  • your critics are less than impartial, in fact, most are bought by BIG PHARMA,
  • you have a paper ‘in press’ that fully deals with all the criticism and explains how inappropriate it really is.

In closing, allow me a final word about publishing. There are hundreds of alternative medicine journals out there to chose from. They will love your papers because they are uncompromising promotional. These journals all have one thing in common: they are run by apologists of alternative medicine who abhor to read anything negative about alternative medicine. Consequently hardly a critical word about alternative medicine will ever appear in these journals. If you want to make double sure that your paper does not get criticised during the peer-review process (this would require a revision, and you don’t need extra work of that nature), you can suggest a friend for peer-reviewing it. In turn, you can offer to him/her that you do the same to him/her the next time he/she has an article to submit. This is how pseudo-scientists make sure that the body of pseudo-evidence for their pseudo-treatments is growing at a steady pace.

It is time, I think, to call an end to this series of articles on ‘drowning in a sea of misinformation’. Not that I have covered every contributor to and aspect of it. On the contrary, I could have carried on for another couple of weeks writing a post every day as I did during the last 15 days. But it was getting a bit boring – at least for me. So, for the last post, I have decided to briefly discuss politicians. In my view, they are crucially important in this context, as they create the general atmosphere and framework in which all the other mis-informers can thrive.

Peter Hain (Labour) is a campaigner for homeopathy and wants to see it widely used on the NHS. He was quoted as saying: “I first came to know about homeopathy through my son who as a baby suffered from eczema. He had it a couple of years but with conventional treatment the eczema was getting progressively worse and at the age of four he also developed asthma. We turned to homeopathy out of desperation and were stunned with the positive results. Since then I have used homeopathy for a wide variety of illnesses, but I rely on arnica as it’s excellent for treating the everyday bruises and shocks to the system we face. My view is that homeopathy and conventional medicines must remain side by side under the NHS to offer the best to patients”

Politicians who put anecdote before evidence do worry me quite a bit, I have to admit; by doing this, they provide us with strong evidence that they would be wise to keep their mouth shut when it comes to matters of science and medicine. But Hain is in good company: Jeremy Hunt (conservative), the current Secretary for Health, signed the following Early Day Motion in 2007: That this House welcomes the positive contribution made to the health of the nation by the NHS homeopathic hospitals; notes that some six million people use complementary treatments each year; believes that complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients, including chronic difficult to treat conditions such as musculoskeletal and other chronic pain, eczema, depression, anxiety and insomnia, allergy, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome; expresses concern that NHS cuts are threatening the future of these hospitals; and calls on the Government actively to support these valuable national assets.

The wording here is remarkable, I think: “…believes that complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients…” What is this supposed to mean? Health politics based on believe??? What it, in fact, implies is that there is merely belief but no evidence. Bravo! This looks like an own-goal to me.

And there are many, many more politicians who seem to prefer belief over evidence – not just in the UK but in virtually every country; our US friends would probably want me to mention Senator Tom Harkin who is responsible for spending billions of tax-payers’ dollars on researching implausible concepts with flawed studies. To make things worse, it is not just individual politicians who promote woo, as far as I can see, most political parties have a group of members promoting pseudo-science.

But why? Why do so many politicians misinform their voters about the values of unproven and disproven treatments? And I do not mean those members of parliament who nobody seems to be able to take seriously, like David Tredenick; I mean otherwise respectable politicians with real influence. Should they not be the first to insist on reliable evidence? Do they not have a mandate and an ethical/moral obligation to do so?

Call me cynical, but I have come to the conclusion that the answer is actually quite simple. Politicians need to be (re-)elected, and therefore they have to run with whatever subject is popular – and, like it or not, alternative medicine is popular. Politicians rarely take a reasonably long view on health care (in fact, very few understand the first thing about science or medicine); their perspective has exactly the same length as the current legislative period. They usually do not even attach much importance to alternative medicine; after all, it only amounts to a tiny fraction of the total health care budget.

Tony Blair (Labour) is as good an example as any other politician; in relation to homeopathy, he is quoted saying: I think that most people today have a rational view about science and my advice to the scientific community would be fight the battles you need to fight. I wouldn’t bother fighting a great battle over homeopathy – there are people who use it, people who don’t use it, it is not going to determine the future of the world, frankly. What will determine the future of the world however, is the scientific community explaining for example the science of genetics and how it develops, or the issue to do with climate change and so on.

Sounds reasonable? Almost, but not quite. Firstly, if people employ homeopathy to protect themselves from infectious diseases like malaria, typhus, TB, AIDS etc., or if people believe those charlatans who promote it as an effective cure for life-threatening conditions, we do have a serious public health issue at hand. Secondly, why should the vast majority of health care professionals bend over backwards to do their very best implementing the concepts of EBM, if homeopathy is being given a free ride to continue existing in a virtual universe of belief-based medicine? Thirdly, how on earth can scientists possibly explain “the science of genetics and how it develops, or the issue to do with climate change”, if they lack the skill, courage, power or honesty to adequately respond to harmful quackery masquerading as medicine?

It is not difficult to criticise politicians but what might be the way forward and out of this mess? Because of the central role they play in all this, I think that it would be important that those politicians who take up posts in science-based areas be adequately educated and trained in science. I know this may sound naïve, but I think it would be an essential step towards avoiding politicians regularly making fools of themselves, misinforming the public and misguiding important decisions which might affect all of us.

I have said it so often that I hesitate to state it again: an uncritical researcher is a contradiction in terms. This begs the question as to how critical the researchers of alternative medicine truly are. In my experience, most tend to be uncritical in the extreme. But how would one go about providing evidence for this view? In a previous blog-post, I have suggested a fairly simple method: to calculate an index of negative conclusions drawn in the articles published by a specific researcher. This is what I wrote:

If we calculated the percentage of a researcher’s papers arriving at positive conclusions and divided this by the percentage of his papers drawing negative conclusions, we might have a useful measure. A realistic example might be the case of a clinical researcher who has published a total of 100 original articles. If 50% had positive and 50% negative conclusions about the efficacy of the therapy tested, his trustworthiness index (TI) would be 1.

Depending on what area of clinical medicine this person is working in, 1 might be a figure that is just about acceptable in terms of the trustworthiness of the author. If the TI goes beyond 1, we might get concerned; if it reaches 4 or more, we should get worried.

An example would be a researcher who has published 100 papers of which 80 are positive and 20 arrive at negative conclusions. His TI would consequently amount to 4. Most of us equipped with a healthy scepticism would consider this figure highly suspect.

So how would alternative medicine researchers do, if we applied this method for assessing their trustworthiness? Very poorly, I fear – but that is speculation! Let’s see some data. Let’s look at one prominent alternative medicine researcher and see. As an example, I have chosen Professor George Lewith (because his name is unique which avoids confusion with researchers), did a quick Medline search to identify the abstracts of his articles on alternative medicine, and extracted the crucial sentence from the conclusions of the most recent ones:

  1.  The study design of registered TCM trials has improved in estimating sample size, use of blinding and placebos
  2.  Real treatment was significantly different from sham demonstrating a moderate specific effect of PKP
  3. These findings highlight the importance of helping patients develop coherent illness representations about their LBP before trying to engage them in treatment-decisions, uptake, or adherence
  4. Existing theories of how context influences health outcomes could be expanded to better reflect the psychological components identified here, such as hope, desire, optimism and open-mindedness
  5. …mainstream science has moved on from the intellectual sterility and ad hominem attacks that characterise the sceptics’ movement
  6. Trustworthy and appropriate information about practitioners (e.g. from professional regulatory bodies) could empower patients to make confident choices when seeking individual complementary practitioners to consult
  7. Comparative effectiveness research is an emerging field and its development and impact must be reflected in future research strategies within complementary and integrative medicine
  8. The I-CAM-Q has low face validity and low acceptability, and is likely to produce biased estimates of CAM use if applied in England, Romania, Italy, The Netherlands or Spain
  9.  Our main finding was of beta power decreases in primary somatosensory cortex and SFG, which opens up a line of future investigation regarding whether this contributes toward an underlying mechanism of acupuncture.
  10. …physiotherapy was appraised more negatively in the National Health Service than the private sector but osteopathy was appraised similarly within both health-care sectors

This is a bit tedious, I agree, so I stop after just 10 articles. But even this short list does clearly indicate the absence of negative conclusions. In fact, I see none at all – arguably a few neutral ones, but nothing negative. All is positive in the realm of alternative medicine research then? In case you don’t agree with that assumption, you might prefer to postulate that this particular alternative medicine researcher somehow avoids negative conclusions. And if you believe that, you are not far from considering that we are being misinformed.

Alternative medicine is not really a field where one might reasonably expect that rigorous research generates nothing but positive results; even to expect 50 or 40% of such findings would be quite optimistic. It follows, I think, that if researchers only find positives, something must be amiss. I have recently demonstrated that the most active research homeopathic group (Professor Witt from the Charite in Berlin) has published nothing but positive findings; even if the results were not quite positive, they managed to formulate a positive conclusion. Does anyone doubt that this amounts to misinformation?

So, I do have produced at least some tentative evidence for my suspicion that some alternative medicine researchers misinform us. But how precisely do they do it? I can think of several methods for avoiding publishing a negative result or conclusion, and I fear that all of them are popular with alternative medicine researchers:

  • design the study in such a way that it cannot possibly give a negative result
  • manipulate the data
  • be inventive when it comes to statistics
  • home in on to the one positive aspect your generally negative data might show
  • do not write up your study; like this nobody will ever see your negative results

And why do they do it? My impression is that they use science not for testing their interventions but for proving them. Critical thinking is a skill that alternative medicine researchers do not seem to cultivate. Often they manage to hide this fact quite cleverly and for good reasons: no respectable funding body would give money for such an abuse of science! Nevertheless, the end-result is plain to see: no negative conclusions are being published!

There are at least two further implications of the fact that alternative medicine researchers misinform the public. The first concerns the academic centres in which these researchers are organised. If a prestigious university accommodates a research unit of alternative medicine, it gives considerable credence to alternative medicine itself. If the research that comes out of the unit is promotional pseudo-science, the result, in my view, amounts to misleading the public about the value of alternative medicine.

The second implication relates to the journals in which researchers of alternative medicine prefer to publish their articles. Today, there are several hundred journals specialised in alternative medicine. We have shown over and over again that these journals publish next to nothing in terms of negative results. In my view, this too amounts to systematic misinformation.

My conclusion from all this is depressing: the type of research that currently dominates alternative medicine is, in fact, pseudo-research aimed not at rigorously falsifying hypotheses but at promoting bogus treatments. In other words alternative medicine researchers crucially contribute to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in this area.

Numerous charities in the UK, US and elsewhere abuse their charitable status to misinform the pubic about alternative medicine. As the BMJ today published an article on one this organisation, I have chosen HOMEOPATHS WITHOUT BORDERS as an example – from a disturbingly vast choice, I hasten to add.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? HOMEOPATHS WITHOUT BORDERS (HWB). Unless, of course, you happen to know that this organisation has nothing whatsoever to do with the much-admired ‘Medicine without Borders’. HWB and its numerous national branches promote the use of homeopathic remedies worldwide, particularly in disaster-stricken and extremely poor areas.  On their website, they state: When disaster strikes or in times of crisis, homeopathy can provide effective treatment for acute anxiety and  the after effects of shock and trauma. No, no, no! Homeopathy is a placebo-therapy; it is not effective for anxiety or anything else, crisis or no crisis.

To get an impression about their activities, here are HWB’s projects for 2013:

  • We plan to train as many as 40 additional Homeopathe Communautaires in 2013.
  • We’ll support the Homeopathe Communautaires as they grow with study groups and ongoing clinical support provided by our volunteer homeopaths.
  • The 2012 graduates of the Fundamentals program will become teachers, moving HWB toward achieving our vision of Haitians teaching Haitians.
  • We hope to bring continuing homeopathic medical care to the people of Haiti, reaching nearly three times as many people as we did in 2012.
  • We plan to initiate a training program in 2013 for Haitian midwives and birth attendants for homeopathic therapeutics in pregnancy, delivery and postpartum care.

All of this looks to me as though HWB should be re-named into HOMEOPATHS WITHOUT SCRUPLES! Under the guise of some humanitarian activity, they seem to promote misinformation about a disproven treatment for some of the most vulnerable people in the world. I cannot imagine many things that are more despicable than that.

David Shaw, senior research fellow, Institute for Biomedical Ethics, University of Basel, Switzerland, has just published the above-mentioned BMJ-article on HWB. He discloses their activities as deeply unethical and concludes: Despite Homeopaths Without Borders’ claims to the contrary, “homeopathic humanitarian help” is a contradiction in terms. Although providing food, water, and solace to people in areas affected by wars and natural disasters certainly constitutes valuable humanitarian work, any homeopathic treatment deceives patients into thinking they are receiving real treatment when they are not. Furthermore, training local people as homeopaths in affected areas amounts to exploiting vulnerable people to increase the reach of homeopathy. Much as an opportunistic infection can take hold when a person’s immune system is weakened, so Homeopaths Without Borders strikes when a country is weakened by a disaster. However, infections are expunged once the immune system recovers but Homeopaths Without Borders’ methods ensure that homeopathy persists in these countries long after the initial catastrophe has passed. Homeopathy is neither helpful nor humanitarian, and to claim otherwise to the victims of disasters amounts to exploitation of those in need of genuine aid.

I strongly recommend reading the article in full.

And lastly: can I encourage readers to post their experience with and knowledge of other woo-infested charities, please?

 

 

Where can someone turn to who wants reliable information on alternative medicine? Many consumers and patients who ask themselves this question might already be somewhat weary of the Internet; everybody should by now know that websites can be dangerously misleading and usually commercially driven. What about books then? People still tend to trust books; they are written by experts, published by responsible enterprises, and sold through respectable outlets. Surely we can trust books, or can’t we?

The first thing that strikes you when you look into the subject is the fact that there are thousands of books on alternative medicine. You only need to visit a major book shop in your high street and admire the rows and rows of these volumes. Since many years, I have been evaluating such volumes, for instance, for our journal FACT where we regularly publish reviews of new material. Through this and other work, I have gained the impression, that most of these books are not worth the paper they are printed on and constitute a major contributor to the misinformation bombarding the consumer in this area. But that was just an impression, hard data would be better.

In 1998, we assessed for the first time the quality of books on alternative medicine ( Int J Risk Safety Med 1998, 11: 209-215. [For some reason, this article is not Medline-listed]). We chose a random sample of 6 such books all published in 1997, and we assessed their contents according to pre-defined criteria. The findings were sobering: the advice given in these volumes was frequently misleading, not based on good evidence and often inaccurate. If followed, it would have caused significant harm to patients.

In 2006, we conducted a similar investigation which we then reported in the first and second editions of our book THE DESKTOP GUIDE TO COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE. This time, we selected 7 best-sellers in alternative medicine and scrutinised them in much the same way. What we found was revealing. Almost every treatment seemed to be recommended for almost every condition. There was no agreement between the different books which therapy might be effective for which condition. Some treatments were even named as indications for a certain condition, while, in other books, they were listed as contra-indications for the same problem. A bewildering plethora of treatments was recommended for most conditions, for instance:

  • addictions: 120 different treatments
  • arthritis: 131 different treatments
  • asthma: 119 different treatments
  • cancer: 133 different treatments
  • etc. etc.

This experience, which we published as a chapter in our book entitled AN EPITAPH TO OPINION-BASED MEDICINE, confirmed our suspicion that books on alternative medicine are a major contributor to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in this area – and, as they are read by many people, a significant risk factor to public health.

Why do publishers allow such rubbish to be printed? Why do so many authors spend their time misleading the public with their dangerous half-knowledge? Why do consumers buy such overtly uncritical nonsense? I do not know the answers, I must admit. But I know that books of this nature do a disservice to everyone involved, including the few respectable aspect of alternative medicine which might actually exist.

Has the situation changed since 2006? We cannot be sure; there is, to the best of my knowledge, no hard data; and nobody has repeated our investigations. But my impression from regularly reviewing new books for FACT and other journals is far from encouraging. I fear that our ‘epitaph to opinion-based medicine’ might have been a little premature.

 

 

 

The WHO is one of the most respected organisations in all of health care. It therefore might come as a surprise that it features in my series of institutions contributing to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in the area of alternative medicine. I have deliberately selected the WHO from many other organisations engaging in similarly misleading activities in order to show that even the most respectable bodies can have little enclaves of quackery hidden in their midst.

In 2006, the WHO invited Prince Charles to elaborate on his most bizarre concepts in relation to ‘integrated medicine’. He told the World Health Assembly in Geneva: “The proper mix of proven complementary, traditional and modern remedies, which emphasises the active participation of the patient, can help to create a powerful healing force in the world…Many of today’s complementary therapies are rooted in ancient traditions that intuitively understood the need to maintain balance and harmony with our minds, bodies and the natural world…Much of this knowledge, often based on oral traditions, is sadly being lost, yet orthodox medicine has so much to learn from it.” He urged countries across the globe to improve the health of their  populations through a more integrated approach to health care. What he failed to mention is the fact that integrating disproven therapies into our clinical routine, as proponents of ‘integrated medicine’ demonstrably do, will not render medicine better or more compassionate but worse and less evidence-based. Or as my more brash US friends often point out: adding cow pie to apple pie is no improvement.

For many years during the early 2000s, the WHO had also been working on a document that would have promoted homeopathy worldwide. They had convened a panel of ‘experts’ including the Queen’s homeopath Peter Fisher. They advocated using this disproven treatment for potentially deadly diseases such as malaria, childhood diarrhoea, or TB as an alternative to conventional medicine. I had been invited to comment on a draft version of this document, but judging from the second draft, my criticism had been totally ignored. Fortunately, the publication of this disastrous advice could be stopped through a concerted initiative of concerned scientists who protested and pointed out that the implementation of this nonsense would kill millions.

In 2003, the WHO had already published a very similar report: a long consensus document on acupuncture. It includes the following list of diseases, symptoms or conditions for which acupuncture has been proved-through controlled trials-to be an effective treatment:

Adverse reactions to radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy
Allergic rhinitis (including hay fever)
Biliary colic
Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke)
Dysentery, acute bacillary
Dysmenorrhoea, primary
Epigastralgia, acute (in peptic ulcer, acute and chronic gastritis, and gastrospasm)
Facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders)
Headache
Hypertension, essential
Hypotension, primary
Induction of labour
Knee pain
Leukopenia
Low back pain
Malposition of fetus, correction of
Morning sickness
Nausea and vomiting
Neck pain
Pain in dentistry (including dental pain and temporomandibular dysfunction)
Periarthritis of shoulder
Postoperative pain
Renal colic
Rheumatoid arthritis
Sciatica
Sprain

If we compare these claims to the reliable evidence on the subject, we find that the vast majority of these indications is not supported by sound data (a fuller discussion on the WHO report and its history can be found in our book TRICK OR TREATMENT…). So, how can any organisation as well-respected globally as the WHO arrive at such outrageously misleading conclusions? The recipe for achieving this is relatively simple and time-tested by many similarly reputable institutions:

  • One convenes a panel of ‘experts’ all or most of whom have a known preconceived opinion in the direction on has decided to go.
  • One allows this panel to work out their own methodology for arriving at the conclusion they desire.
  • One encourages cherry-picking of the data.
  • One omits a meaningful evaluation of the quality of the reviewed studies.
  • One prevents any type of critical assessment of the report such as peer-review by sceptics.
  • If criticism does emerge nevertheless, one ignores it.

I should stress again that the WHO is, on the whole, a very good and useful organisation. This is precisely why I chose it for this post. As long as it is big enough, ANY such institution is likely to contain a little niche where woo and anti-science flourishes. There are far too many examples to mention, e.g. NICE, the NIH, UK and other governments. And this is the reason we must be watchful. It is all to human to assume that information is reliable simply because it originates from an authoritative source; the appeal to authority is appealing, of course, but it also is fallacious!

 

One would have thought that, after losing their libel case against Simon Singh, chiropractors across the world might have got their act together and stopped claiming that their ‘bogus’ treatments are effective for conditions that lack both supporting evidence and scientific rationale. However, our investigation which was carried out in 2010, well after the libel action and the embarrassing defeat for chiropractors, sadly suggests otherwise.

It was aimed at determining  the frequency of claims of chiropractors and their associations to treat a range of pre-defined conditions: asthma, headache/migraine, infant colic, colic, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain, whiplash as examples of indications not supported by sound evidence, and lower back pain as an example of a condition supported by some evidence.

For this purpose, we conducted a review of 200 websites of individual chiropractors and 9 websites of chiropractic associations from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States between 1 October 2008 and 26 November 2008. Our outcome measure was either direct or indirect claims regarding the eight above-named conditions.

We found evidence that 95% chiropractor websites made unsubstantiated claims regarding at least one of these conditions. Four of the 9 (44%) associations made justified claims about lower back pain. All 9 associations made unsubstantiated claims about headache/migraine. Unsubstantiated claims were also made about asthma, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain.

We concluded that the majority of chiropractors and their associations in the English-speaking world seem to make therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence, whilst only 28% of chiropractor websites promote lower back pain, which is supported by some evidence. We suggest the ubiquity of the unsubstantiated claims constitutes an ethical and public health issue.

Criticism regarding unsubstantiated claims have been raised even from within the profession of chiropractors (albeit very, very rarely); two chiropractors suggested that they are “evidence of a lack of professionalism and of quackery” that have evolved within a “tradition of dogma, fallacious reasoning, and unconventional attitudes about research and science”. I quite agree; instead of self-critical attitudes, chiropractors seem to develop a pathological state of denial.

The codes of ethics of chiropractors vary, of course, from nation to nation, but they tend to agree that information used must be factual and verifiable and should not be misleading or inaccurate. Unsubstantiated claims such as those disclosed by our investigation thus violate the rules of these codes. More importantly perhaps, they also misinform unsuspecting consumers and put public health at risk. This has now been going on for such a long time that it truly is embarrassing – not just for chiropractors (who seem to be immune to embarrassment) but to regulators and even to society at large who tolerates such abuse at the hands of the chiropractic profession.

Considering more recent events in the realm of chiropractic, it seems highly unlikely that the situation is going to improve any time soon. Misinformation in the name of maximising income , it often seems to me, is what chiropractic is really about.

Colonic irrigation is the alternative therapy of celebrities (and those who like to imitate them): they tend to use it for all sorts of ailments, predominantly for loosing weight. And it works! When they have paid for the session, they are relieved of some cash as well as of about half a kilo of body weight. By the time they wake up the next morning, the money is still gone, but the weight is back. This is a most effective method for getting rid of some £s, but NOT an effective way for shedding a few pounds.

 Numerous synonyms for colonic irrigation exist, e.g. colonic treatment, colon cleansing, rectal irrigation, colon therapy, colon hydrotherapy, colonic. The treatment is based on the ancient but obsolete theory of ‘autointoxication’, i.e. the body is  assumed to poison itself with, ‘autotoxins’ which, in turn, cause various illnesses. So, it is implausible and there is also no evidence to suggest it is effective. But this does not stop professional organisations to make claims which are good for business.

My analysis of the claims made by professional organisations of practitioners of colonic irrigation across the globe aimed at assessing the therapeutic claims made by these institutions. Six such organisations were identified, and the contents of their websites were studied. The results showed that all of the six organisations make therapeutic claims on their websites. Frequently mentioned themes are ‘detoxification’, normalisation of intestinal functions, treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases and body weight reduction. The claims are mostly confined to symptomatic improvements – but there are exceptions, e.g. prevention of bowel cancer or sorting out Irritable Bowel Syndrome ‘once and for all’ . Other therapeutic claims pertain to asthma, menstrual irregularities, circulatory disorders, skin problems, improvement in energy levels and no longer requiring pharmacotherapy. All these claims represent testable hypotheses.

The question therefore arises whether these hypotheses have been tested and, if so, what the results of such investigations suggest? The use of colonic irrigation by alternative practitioners for any indications is not supported by any sound evidence at all. There are simply no trials to show effectiveness. Even worse is the fact that, although touted as safe, colonic irrigation can lead to serious complications.

The conclusion is therefore simple: colonic irrigation is neither demonstrably effective nor safe, and the information supplied by its professional organisations is therefore a significant contributor to the sea of misinformation in the realm of alternative medicine.

The UK ‘Society of Homeopaths’ (SoH) is the largest professional organisation of UK non-doctor, so-called lay- homeopaths. On their website, the SoH made very specific claims about homeopathy; in particular, they listed conditions for which homeopathy had allegedly been proven to be effective. These claims have now thoroughly been debunked, and the evidence the SoH produced in support of their claims has been shown to be misleading, cherry-picked or misinterpreted.

I have no idea who conducted the above-named investigation and made a youtube video of it, but I think it is essentially correct and well worth watching. My own experiences with the SoH relate mainly to two encounters.

The first was a complaint I made about one of their high-ranking officers, Ralf Jeutter. He had been promotiong homeopathic vaccinations on his website (needless to stress, I think, that there is no evidence to support the notion that homeopathic vaccinations are effective). As I felt that the SoH dragged their feet pursuing my complaint, I had to send several reminders. Eventually, they considered it and concluded that Reuter had done nothing wrong. This, presumably, is the reason why, even today, he can state on his website that Homeopathy is used to help individuals in dealing better with kinds of infections such as leptospirosis, meningitis and cholera. All is fine, it seems as long as a disclaimer is added: Any information obtained here is not to be construed as medical OR legal advice. The decision to vaccinate and how you implement that decision is yours and yours alone. The evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic immunisation is ‘anecdotal’. That means it is based on individuals’ reports past and present.

My second encounter with the SoH relates to my 2010 analysis of the SoH code of ethics and their adherence to it. The code demanded that:

 

  • ‘all speculative theories will be stated as such and clearly distinguished’
  • ‘no advertising may be used which expressly or implicitly claims to cure named diseases’
  • ‘Advertising shall not be false, fraudulent, misleading, deceptive, extravagant or sensational.’

Encouraged by these assurances, I decided to study the websites of some members of the SoH, and soon discovered numerous and very obvious violations of the above-mentioned imperatives. In an attempt to find the root of these transgressions, I scrutinised the SoH’s own website where I found a multitude violations on all levels of the SoH’s own code of ethics. Many of the violations related to claims which were not supported by evidence. In other words, the largest professional UK organisation of lay- homeopaths misled the public in several rather devious ways:

  • they pretended to adhere to a code of ethics which forbids members to mislead the public
  • SoH -members nevertheless did mislead the public in ways that public health at risk
  • and they did so not least because the SoH followed exactly the same strategy
  • thus the SoH violated its own code of ethics to the detriment of public health.

My analysis was conducted a while ago, and some might hope that the SoH has stopped systematically misleading the public. This hope, however, is harshly disappointed when you watch the brand-new video entitled TESTING HOMEOPATHY mentioned above. As the SoH is about to celebrate 35 years of wisdom, courage, knowledge and prosperity, I do wonder whether this should not be 35 years of dangerously misleading the public.

What do you think?

 

 

In my last post and several others before, I have stated that consumers are incessantly being mislead about the value of alternative medicine. This statement requires evidence, and I intend to provide it – not just in one post but in a series of posts following in fast succession.

I start with an investigation we did over a decade ago. Its primary aim was to determine which complementary therapies are believed by their respective representing UK professional organizations to be suited for which medical conditions.

For this purpose, we sent out 223 questionnaires to CAM organizations representing a single CAM therapy (yes, amazingly that many such institutions exist just in the UK!). They were asked to list the 15 conditions which they felt benefited most from their specific CAM therapy, as well as the 15 most important contra-indications, the typical costs of initial and any subsequent treatments and the average length of training required to become a fully qualified practitioner. The conditions and contra-indications quoted by responding CAM organizations were recorded and the top five of each were determined. Treatment costs and hours of training were expressed as ranges.

Only 66 questionnaires were returned. Taking undelivered questionnaires into account, the response rate was 34%. Two or more responses were received from CAM organizations representing twelve therapies: aromatherapy, Bach flower remedies, Bowen technique, chiropractic, homoeopathy, hypnotherapy, magnet therapy, massage, nutrition, reflexology, Reiki and yoga.

The top seven common conditions deemed to benefit from all twelve therapies, in order of frequency, were: stress/anxiety, headaches/migraine, back pain, respiratory problems (including asthma), insomnia, cardiovascular problems and musculoskeletal problems. It is perhaps important at this stage to point out that some of these conditions are serious, even life-threatening. Aromatherapy, Bach flower remedies, hypnotherapy, massage, nutrition, reflexology, Reiki and yoga were all recommended as suitable treatments for stress/anxiety. Aromatherapy, Bowen technique, chiropractic, hypnotherapy, massage, nutrition, reflexology, Reiki and yoga were all recommended for headache/migraine. Bowen technique, chiropractic, magnet therapy, massage, reflexology and yoga were recommended for back pain. None of the therapies cost more than £60 for an initial consultation and treatment. No correlation between length of training and treatment cost was noted.

I think, this article provides ample evidence to show that, at least in the UK, professional organisations of alternative medicine readily issue statements about the effectiveness of specific alternative therapies which are not supported by evidence. Several years later, Simon Singh noted that phenomenon in a Guardian-comment and wrote about the British Chiropractic Association “they happily promote bogus claims”. He was famously sued for libel but won the case. Simon had picked the BCA merely by chance. The frightening thought is that he could have targeted any other of the 66 organisations from our investigation: they all seem to promote bogus claims quite happily.

Several findings from our study stood out for being particularly worrying: according to the respective professional organisation, Bach Flower Remedies were deemed to be effective for cancer and AIDS, for instance. If their peers put out such irresponsible nonsense, we should not be amazed at the claims made by the practitioners. And if the practitioners tell such ‘tall tales’ to their clients, to journalists and to everyone else, how can we be amazed that we seem to be drowning in a sea of misinformation?

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