MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

pseudo-science

It is usually BIG PHARMA who stands accused of being less than honest with the evidence, particularly when it runs against commercial interests; and the allegations prove to be correct with depressing regularity. In alternative medicine, commercial interests exist too, but there is usually much less money at stake. So, a common assumption is that conflicts of interest are less relevant in alternative medicine. Like so many assumptions in this area, this notion is clearly and demonstrably erroneous.

The sums of money are definitely smaller, but non-commercial conflicts of interest are potentially more important than the commercial ones. I am thinking of the quasi-religious beliefs that are so very prevalent in alternative medicine. Belief can move mountains, they say – it can surely delude people and make them do the most extraordinary things. Belief can transform advocates of alternative medicine into ‘ALCHEMISTS OF ALTERNATIVE EVIDENCE’ who turn negative/unfavourable into positive/favourable evidence.

The alchemists’ ‘tricks of the trade’ are often the same as used by BIG PHARMA; they include:

  • drawing conclusions which are not supported by the data
  • designing studies such that they will inevitably generate a favourable result
  • cherry-picking the evidence
  • hiding unfavourable findings
  • publishing favourable results multiple times
  • submitting data-sets to multiple statistical tests until a positive result emerges
  • defaming scientists who publish unfavourable findings
  • bribing experts
  • prettify data
  • falsifying data

As I said, these methods, albeit despicable, are well-known to pseudoscientists in all fields of inquiry. To assume that they are unknown in alternative medicine is naïve and unrealistic, as many of my previous posts confirm.

In addition to these ubiquitous ‘standard’ methods of scientific misconduct and fraud, there are a few techniques which are more or less unique to and typical for the alchemists of alternative medicine. In the following parts of this series of articles, I will try to explain these methods in more detail.

Cancer patients are bombarded with information about supplements which allegedly are effective for their condition. I estimate that 99.99% of this information is unreliable and much of it is outright dangerous. So, there is an urgent need for trustworthy, objective information. But which source can we trust?

The authors of a recent article in ‘INTEGRATIVE CANCER THARAPIES’ (the first journal to spearhead and focus on a new and growing movement in cancer treatment. The journal emphasizes scientific understanding of alternative medicine and traditional medicine therapies, and their responsible integration with conventional health care. Integrative care includes therapeutic interventions in diet, lifestyle, exercise, stress care, and nutritional supplements, as well as experimental vaccines, chrono-chemotherapy, and other advanced treatments) review the issue of dietary supplements in the treatment of cancer patients. They claim that the optimal approach is to discuss both the facts and the uncertainty with the patient, in order to reach a mutually informed decision. This sounds promising, and we might thus trust them to deliver something reliable.

In order to enable doctors and other health care professionals to have such discussion, the authors then report on the work of the ‘Clinical Practice Committee’ of ‘The Society of Integrative Oncology’. This panel undertook the challenge of providing basic information to physicians who wish to discuss these issues with their patients. A list of supplements that have the best suggestions of benefit was constructed by leading researchers and clinicians who have experience in using these supplements:

  1. curcumin,
  2. glutamine,
  3. vitamin D,
  4. maitake mushrooms,
  5. fish oil,
  6. green tea,
  7. milk thistle,
  8. astragalus,
  9. melatonin,
  10. probiotics.

The authors claim that their review includes basic information on each supplement, such as evidence on effectiveness and clinical trials, adverse effects, and interactions with medications. The information was constructed to provide an up-to-date base of knowledge, so that physicians and other health care providers would be aware of the supplements and be able to discuss realistic expectations and potential benefits and risks (my emphasis).

At first glance, this task looks ambitious but laudable; however, after studying the paper in some detail, I must admit that I have considerable problems taking it seriously – and here is why.

The first question I ask myself when reading the abstract is: Who are these “leading researchers and clinicians”? Surely such a consensus exercise crucially depends on who is being consulted. The article itself does not reveal who these experts are, merely that they are all members of the ‘Society of Integrative Oncology’. A little research reveals this organisation to be devoted to integrating all sorts of alternative therapies into cancer care. If we assume that the experts are identical with the authors of the review; one should point out that most of them are proponents of alternative medicine. This lack of critical input seems more than a little disconcerting.

My next questions are: How did they identify the 10 supplements and how did they evaluate the evidence for or against them? The article informs us that a 5-step procedure was employed:

1. Each clinician in this project was requested to construct a list of supplements that they tend to use frequently in their practice.

2. An initial list of close to 25 supplements was constructed. This list included supplements that have suggestions of some possible benefit and likely to carry minimal risk in cancer care.

3. From that long list, the group agreed on the 10 leading supplements that have the best suggestions of benefit.

4. Each participant selected 1 to 2 supplements that they have interest and experience in their use and wrote a manuscript related to the selected supplement in a uniformed and agreed format. The agreed format was constructed to provide a base of knowledge, so physicians and other health care providers would be able to discuss realistic expectations and potential benefits and risks with patients and families that seek that kind of information.

5. The revised document was circulated among participants for revisions and comments.

This method might look fine to proponents of alternative medicine, but from a scientific point of view, it is seriously wanting. Essentially, they asked those experts who are in favour of a given supplement to write a report to justify his/her preference. This method is not just open bias, it formally invites bias.

Predictably then, the reviews of the 10 chosen supplements are woefully inadequate. These is no evidence of a systematic approach; the cited evidence is demonstrably cherry-picked; there is a complete lack of critical analysis; for several supplements, clinical data are virtually absent without the authors finding this embarrassing void a reason for concern; dosage recommendations are often vague and naïve, to say the least (for instance, for milk thistle: 200 to 400 mg per day – without indication of what the named weight range refers to, the fresh plant, dried powder, extract…?); safety data are incomplete and nobody seems to mind that supplements are not subject to systematic post-marketing surveillance; the text is full of naïve thinking and contradictions (e.g.”There are no reported side effects of the mushroom extracts or the Maitake D-fraction. As Maitake may lower blood sugar, it should be used with caution in patients with diabetes“); evidence suggesting that a given supplement might reduce the risk of cancer is presented as though this means it is an effective treatment for an existing cancer; cancer is usually treated as though it is one disease entity without any differentiation of different cancer types.

The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. But I do wonder, isn’t being in favour of integrating half-baked nonsense into cancer care and being selected for one’s favourable attitude towards certain supplements already a conflict of interest?

In any case, the review is in my view not of sufficient rigor to form the basis for well-informed discussions with patients. The authors of the review cite a guideline by the ‘Society of Integrative Oncology’ for the use of supplements in cancer care which states: For cancer patients who wish to use nutritional supplements, including botanicals for purported antitumor effects, it is recommended that they consult a trained professional. During the consultation, the professional should provide support, discuss realistic expectations, and explore potential benefits and risks. It is recommended that use of those agents occur only in the context of clinical trials, recognized nutritional guidelines, clinical evaluation of the risk/benefit ratio based on available evidence, and close monitoring of adverse effects. It seems to me that, with this review, the authors have not adhered to their own guideline.

Criticising the work of others is perhaps not very difficult, however, doing a better job usually is. So, can I offer anything that is better than the above criticised review? The answer is YES. Our initiative ‘CAM cancer’ provides up-to-date, concise and evidence-based systematic reviews of many supplements and other alternative treatments that cancer patients are likely to hear about. Their conclusions are not nearly as uncritically positive as those of the article in ‘INTEGRATIVE CANCER THERAPIES’.

I happen to believe that it is important for cancer patients to have access to reliable information and that it is unethical to mislead them with biased accounts about the value of any treatment.

I am sure, we have all heard it hundreds of times: THERE ARE IMPORTANT LINKS BETWEEN OUR DIET AND CERTAIN CANCERS. The evidence for this statement seems fairly compelling. Yet it also is complex and often confusing.

A recent review, for instance, suggested that fruits (particularly citrus) and vegetable consumption may be beneficial in the primary prevention of pancreatic cancer, the consumption of whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk and fortification of whole grains with folate may confer further protection. Red meat, cooked at high temperatures, should be avoided, and replaced with poultry or fish. Total fat should be reduced. The use of curcumin and other flavonoids should be encouraged in the diet. Another equally recent review, however, indicated that there is no conclusive evidence as an independent risk factor for isolated nutrients versus adoption of dietary patterns for cancer risk. Cancer colon risk derived from meat intake is influenced by both total intake and its frequency. The interaction of phenolic compounds on metabolic and signalling pathways seems to exert an inhibitory effect on cell proliferation and tumor metastasis and induces apoptosis in various types of cancer cells, including colon, lung, prostate, hepatocellular or breast cancer. A third recent review concluded that cruciferous vegetable intake protects against cancer of the colon, while a forth review suggested that the Mediterranean dietary pattern and diets composed largely of vegetables, fruit, fish, and soy are associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer. There was no evidence of an association between traditional dietary patterns and risk of breast cancer.

Not least based on these mixed messages from the scientific literature, an entire industry has developed selling uncounted alternative cancer-diets and dietary supplements to desperate patients and consumers. They promise much more than just cancer prevention, in fact, leave little doubt about the notion that cancer might be curable by diet. Here are just a few quotes from the thousands of websites promoting alternative cancer diets:

  • The Ketogenic Diet is believed capable of starving cancer cells to death, and thus capable of restricting tumour development.
  • a more alkaline body makes it difficult for tumors to grow.
  • Budwig diet: This diet was developed by Dr. Johanna Budwig who was nominated for the noble Prize sixth times. The diet is intended as a preventative as well as an alternative cancer treatment.
  • the Gerson Therapy naturally reactivates your body’s magnificent ability to heal itself – with no damaging side effects. This a powerful, natural treatment boosts the body’s own immune system to heal cancer, arthritis, heart disease, allergies, and many other degenerative diseases. Dr. Max Gerson developed the Gerson Therapy in the 1930s, initially as a treatment for his own debilitating migraines, and eventually as a treatment for degenerative diseases such as skin tuberculosis, diabetes and, most famously, cancer.
  • the concept of macrobiotics is much more than an alternative diet for cancer, or any other illness, but rather the ancient Chinese belief that all life, indeed the whole universe, is a balance of two opposing forces Yin and Yang.

Confused? Yes, I do worry how many cancer patients listen to these claims and pin their hopes on one of these diets. But what exactly does the evidence tell us about them?

A German team of researchers evaluated the following alternative cancer-diets: raw vegetables and fruits, alkaline diet, macrobiotics, Gerson’s regime, Budwig’s and low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet. Their extensive searches of the published literature failed to find clinical evidence supporting any of the diets. Furthermore, case reports and pre-clinical data pointed to the potential harm of some of these diets. The authors concluded that considering the lack of evidence of benefits from cancer diets and potential harm by malnutrition, oncologists should engage more in counselling cancer patients on such diets.

In other words, alternative cancer diets – and I mean not just the ones mentioned above, but all of them – are not supported by good evidence for efficacy as a treatment or prevention of any type of cancer. In addition, they might also cause harm.

What follows is obvious: cancer patients should take sound nutritional advice and adopt a healthy general life-style. But they should run a mile as soon as anyone suggests an alternative dietary cure for their disease.

Visceral Manipulation (VM) was developed by the French Osteopath and Physical Therapist Jean-Pierre Barral. According to uncounted Internet-sites, books and other promotional literature, VM is a miracle cure for just about every disease imaginable. On one of his many websites, Barral claims that: Comparative Studies found Visceral Manipulation Beneficial for Various Disorders

Acute Disorders Whiplash Seatbelt Injuries Chest or Abdominal Sports Injuries
Digestive Disorders Bloating and Constipation Nausea and Acid Reflux GERD Swallowing Dysfunctions
Women’s and Men’s Health Issues Chronic Pelvic Pain Endometriosis Fibroids and Cysts Dysmenorrhea Bladder Incontinence Prostate Dysfunction Referred Testicular Pain Effects of Menopause
Emotional Issues Anxiety and Depression Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Musculoskeletal Disorders Somatic-Visceral Interactions Chronic Spinal Dysfunction Headaches and Migraines Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Peripheral Joint Pain Sciatica
Pain Related to Post-operative Scar Tissue Post-infection Scar Tissue Autonomic Mechanisms
Pediatric Issues Constipation and Gastritis Persistent Vomiting Vesicoureteral Reflux Infant Colic

This sounds truly wonderful, and we want to learn more. The text goes on to explain that:

VM assists functional and structural imbalances throughout the body including musculoskeletal, vascular, nervous, urogenital, respiratory, digestive and lymphatic dysfunction. It evaluates and treats the dynamics of motion and suspension in relation to organs, membranes, fascia and ligaments. VM increases proprioceptive communication within the body, thereby revitalizing a person and relieving symptoms of pain, dysfunction, and poor posture.

Fascinating! Sceptics might think that such phraseology is a prime example of pseudo-scientific gobbledegook – but wait:

An integrative approach to evaluation and treatment of a patient requires assessment of the structural relationships between the viscera, and their fascial or ligamentous attachments to the musculoskeletal system. Strains in the connective tissue of the viscera can result from surgical scars, adhesions, illness, posture or injury. Tension patterns form through the fascial network deep within the body, creating a cascade of effects far from their sources for which the body will have to compensate. This creates fixed, abnormal points of tension that the body must move around, and this chronic irritation gives way to functional and structural problems.

Imagine an adhesion around the lungs. It would create a modified axis that demands abnormal accommodations from nearby body structures. For example, the adhesion could alter rib motion, which could then create imbalanced forces on the vertebral column and, with time, possibly develop a dysfunctional relationship with other structures. This scenario highlights just one of hundreds of possible ramifications of a small dysfunction – magnified by thousands of repetitions each day….the sinuvertebral nerves innervate the intervertebral disks and have direct connections with the sympathetic nervous system, which innervates the visceral organs. The sinuvertebral nerves and sympathetic nervous system are linked to the spinal cord, which has connections with the brain. In this way someone with chronic pain can have irritations and facilitated areas not only in the musculoskeletal system (including joints, muscles, fascia, and disks) but also the visceral organs and their connective tissues (including the liver, stomach, gallbladder, intestines and adrenal glands), the peripheral nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system and even the spinal cord and brain….

Visceral Manipulation is based on the specific placement of soft manual forces to encourage the normal mobility, tone and motion of the viscera and their connective tissues. These gentle manipulations can potentially improve the functioning of individual organs, the systems the organs function within, and the structural integrity of the entire body….Visceral Manipulation works only to assist the forces already at work. Because of that, trained therapists can be sure of benefiting the body rather than adding further injury or disorganization.

By now, we are all wondering how Barral was able to dream up this truly fantastic panacea. Reading on, we learn that it was not ‘dreamt up’ at all – it was developed through painstaking research and rigorous science:

Jean-Pierre Barral first became interested in biomechanics while working as a registered physical therapist of the Lung Disease Hospital in Grenoble, France. That’s where he met Dr. Arnaud, a recognized specialist in lung diseases and a master of cadaver dissection. Working with Dr. Arnaud, Barral followed patterns of stress in the tissues of cadavers and studied biomechanics in living subjects. This introduced him to the visceral system, its potential to promote lines of tension within the body, and the notion that tissues have memory. All this was fundamental to his development of Visceral Manipulation. In 1974, Barral earned his diploma in osteopathic medicine from the European School of Osteopathy in Maidstone, England. Working primarily with articular and structural manipulation, he began forming the basis for Visceral Manipulation during an unusual session with a patient he’d been treating with spinal manipulations.

During the preliminary examination, Barral was surprised to find appreciable movement. The patient confirmed that he felt relief from his back pain after going to an “old man who pushed something in his abdomen.”

This incident piqued Barral’s interest in the relationship between the viscera and the spine. That’s when he began exploring stomach manipulations with several patients, with successful results gradually leading him to develop Visceral Manipulation. Between 1975 and 1982, Barral taught spinal biomechanics at England’s European School of Osteopathy. In collaboration with Dr. Jean-Paul Mathieu and Dr. Pierre Mercier, he published Articular Vertebrae Diagnosis.

With all this serious science, we are, of course, keen to learn about the studies of VM published in peer-reviewed journals. Amazingly, there seems to be an acute shortage of that sort of thing. You can buy many books by Barral, but to the best of my knowledge, there are no studies of VM by Barral or anyone else in medical journals. My own searches resulted in precisely zero papers, and Medline returns not a single article of Barral J-P on VM, osteopathy or manipulation.

This is odd, I must say!

Could all this important-sounding scientific (some might say pseudo-scientific) text be a complete fake? Where are the ‘COMPARATIVE STUDIES’ mentioned above? Could it be that VM is nothing more than a rip-off for gullible half-wits?

I really cannot imagine – after all, VM is even being taught at some universities! And one could never make all this up; that would be dishonest!!!

I hope my readers can point me to the proper science of VM and thus put my suspicions to rest.

Advocates of alternative medicine are incredibly fond of supporting their claims with anecdotes, or ‘case-reports’ as they are officially called. There is no question, case-reports can be informative and important, but we need to be aware of their limitations.

A recent case-report from the US might illustrated this nicely. It described a 65-year-old male patient who had had MS for 20 years when he decided to get treated with Chinese scalp acupuncture. The motor area, sensory area, foot motor and sensory area, balance area, hearing and dizziness area, and tremor area were stimulated once a week for 10 weeks, then once a month for 6 further sessions.

After the 16 treatments, the patient showed remarkable improvements. He was able to stand and walk without any problems. The numbness and tingling in his limbs did not bother him anymore. He had more energy and had not experienced incontinence of urine or dizziness after the first treatment. He was able to return to work full time. Now the patient has been in remission for 26 months.

The authors of this case-report conclude that Chinese scalp acupuncture can be a very effective treatment for patients with MS. Chinese scalp acupuncture holds the potential to expand treatment options for MS in both conventional and complementary or integrative therapies. It can not only relieve symptoms, increase the patient’s quality of life, and slow and reverse the progression of physical disability but also reduce the number of relapses and help patients.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with case-reports; on the contrary, they can provide extremely valuable pointers for further research. If they relate to adverse effects, they can give us crucial information about the risks associated with treatments. Nobody would ever argue that case-reports are useless, and that is why most medical journals regularly publish such papers. But they are valuable only, if one is aware of their limitations. Medicine finally started to make swift progress, ~150 years ago, when we gave up attributing undue importance to anecdotes, began to doubt established wisdom and started testing it scientifically.

Conclusions such as the ones drawn above are not just odd, they are misleading to the point of being dangerous. A reasonable conclusion might have been that this case of a MS-patient is interesting and should be followed-up through further observations. If these then seem to confirm the positive outcome, one might consider conducting a clinical trial. If this study proves to yield encouraging findings, one might eventually draw the conclusions which the present authors drew from their single case.

To jump at conclusions in the way the authors did, is neither justified nor responsible. It is unjustified because case-reports never lend themselves to such generalisations. And it is irresponsible because desperate patients, who often fail to understand the limitations of case-reports and tend to believe things that have been published in medical journals, might act on these words. This, in turn, would raise false hopes or might even lead to patients forfeiting those treatments that are evidence-based.

It is high time, I think, that proponents of alternative medicine give up their love-affair with anecdotes and join the rest of the health care professions in the 21st century.

A recent interview on alternative medicine for the German magazine DER SPIEGEL prompted well over 500 comments; even though, in the interview, I covered numerous alternative therapies, the discussion that followed focussed almost entirely on homeopathy. Yet again, many of the comments provided a reminder of the quasi-religious faith many people have in homeopathy.

There can, of course, be dozens of reasons for such strong convictions. Yet, in my experience, some seem to be more prevalent and important than others. During my last two decades in researching homeopathy, I think, I have identified several of the most important ones. In this post, I try to outline a typical sequence of events that eventually leads to a faith in homeopathy which is utterly immune to fact and reason.

The epiphany

The starting point of this journey towards homeopathy-worship is usually an impressive personal experience which is often akin to an epiphany (defined as a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization). I have met hundreds of advocates of homeopathy, and those who talk about this sort of thing invariably offer impressive stories about how they metamorphosed from being a ‘sceptic’ (yes, it is truly phenomenal how many believers insist that they started out as sceptics) into someone who was completely bowled over by homeopathy, and how that ‘moment of great revelation’ changed the rest of their lives. Very often, this ‘Saulus-Paulus conversion’ relates to that person’s own (or a close friend’s) illness which allegedly was cured by homeopathy.

Rachel Roberts, chief executive of the Homeopathy Research Institute, provides as good an example of this sort of epiphany as anyone; in an article in THE GUARDIAN, she described her conversion to homeopathy with the following words:

I was a dedicated scientist about to begin a PhD in neuroscience when, out of the blue, homeopathy bit me on the proverbial bottom.

Science had been my passion since I began studying biology with Mr Hopkinson at the age of 11, and by the age of 21, when I attended the dinner party that altered the course of my life, I had still barely heard of it. The idea that I would one day become a homeopath would have seemed ludicrous.

That turning point is etched in my mind. A woman I’d known my entire life told me that a homeopath had successfully treated her when many months of conventional treatment had failed. As a sceptic, I scoffed, but was nonetheless a little intrigued.

She confessed that despite thinking homeopathy was a load of rubbish, she’d finally agreed to an appointment, to stop her daughter nagging. But she was genuinely shocked to find that, after one little pill, within days she felt significantly better. A second tablet, she said, “saw it off completely”.

I admit I ruined that dinner party. I interrogated her about every detail of her diagnosis, previous treatment, time scales, the lot. I thought it through logically – she was intelligent, she wasn’t lying, she had no previous inclination towards alternative medicine, and her reluctance would have diminished any placebo effect.

Scientists are supposed to make unprejudiced observations, then draw conclusions. As I thought about this, I was left with the highly uncomfortable conclusion that homeopathy appeared to have worked. I had to find out more.

So, I started reading about homeopathy, and what I discovered shifted my world for ever. I became convinced enough to hand my coveted PhD studentship over to my best friend and sign on for a three-year, full-time homeopathy training course.

Now, as an experienced homeopath, it is “science” that is biting me on the bottom. I know homeopathy works…

As I said, I have heard many strikingly similar accounts. Some of these tales seem a little too tall to be true and might be a trifle exaggerated, but the consistency of the picture that emerges from all of these stories is nevertheless extraordinary: people get started on a single anecdote which they are prepared to experience as an epiphanic turn-around. Subsequently, they are on a mission of confirming their new-found belief over and over again, until they become undoubting disciples for life.

So what? you might ask. But I do think this epiphany-like event at the outset of a homeopathic career is significant. In no other area of health care does the initial anecdote regularly play such a prominent role. People do not become believers in aspirin, for instance, on the basis of a ‘moment of great revelation’, they may take it because of the evidence. And, if there is a discrepancy between the external evidence and their own experience, as with homeopathy, most people would start to reflect: What other explanations exist to rationalise the anecdote? Invariably, there are many (placebo, natural history of the condition, concomitant events etc.).

Confirmation bias

Epiphany-stuck believers spends much time and effort to actively look for similar stories that seem to confirm the initial anecdote. They might, for instance, recommend or administer or prescribe homeopathy to others, many of whom would report positive outcomes. At the same time, all anecdotes that do not happen to fit the belief are brushed aside, forgotten, supressed, belittled, decried etc. This process leads to confirmation after confirmation after confirmation – and gradually builds up to what proponents of homeopathy would call ‘years of experience’. And ‘years of experience’ can, of course, not be wrong!

Again, believers neglect to question, doubt and rationalise their own perceptions. They ignore the fact that years of experience might just be little more than a suborn insistence on repeating one’s own mistakes. Even the most obvious confounders such as selective memory or alternative causes for positive clinical outcomes are quickly dismissed or not even considered at all.

Avoiding cognitive dissonance at all cost

But believers still has to somehow deal with the scientific facts about homeopathy; and these are, of course, grossly out of line with their belief. Thus the external evidence and the internal belief would inevitably clash creating a shrill cognitive dissonance. This must be avoided at all cost, as it might threaten the believer’s peace of mind. And the solution is amazingly simple: scientific evidence that does not confirm the believer’s conviction is ignored or, when this proves to be impossible, turned upside down.

Rachel Roberts’ account is most enlightening also in this repect:

And yet I keep reading reports in the media saying that homeopathy doesn’t work and that this scientific evidence doesn’t exist.

The facts, it seems, are being ignored. By the end of 2009, 142 randomised control trials (the gold standard in medical research) comparing homeopathy with placebo or conventional treatment had been published in peer-reviewed journals – 74 were able to draw firm conclusions: 63 were positive for homeopathy and 11 were negative. Five major systematic reviews have also been carried out to analyse the balance of evidence from RCTs of homeopathy – four were positive (Kleijnen, J, et al; Linde, K, et al; Linde, K, et al; Cucherat, M, et al) and one was negative (Shang, A et al). It’s usual to get mixed results when you look at a wide range of research results on one subject, and if these results were from trials measuring the efficacy of “normal” conventional drugs, ratios of 63:11 and 4:1 in favour of a treatment working would be considered pretty persuasive.

This statement is, in my view, a classic example of a desperate misinterpretation of the truth as a means of preventing the believer’s house of cards from collapsing. It even makes the hilarious claim that not the believers but the doubters “ignore” the facts.

In order to be able to adhere to her belief, Roberts needs to rely on a woefully biased white-wash from the ‘British Homeopathic Association’. And, in order to be on the safe side, she even quotes it misleadingly. The conclusion of the Cucherat review, for instance, can only be seen as positive by most blinkered of minds: There is some evidence that homeopathic treatments are more effective than placebo; however, the strength of this evidence is low because of the low methodological quality of the trials. Studies of high methodological quality were more likely to be negative than the lower quality studies. Further high quality studies are needed to confirm these results. Contrary to what Roberts states, there are at least a dozen more than 5 systematic reviews of homeopathy; my own systematic review of systematic reviews, for example, concluded that the best clinical evidence for homeopathy available to date does not warrant positive recommendations for its use in clinical practice.

It seems that, at this stage of a believer’s development, the truth gets all too happily sacrificed on the altar of faith. All these ‘ex-sceptics’ turned believers are now able to display is a rather comical parody of scepticism.

The delusional end-stage

The last stage in the career of a believer has been reached when hardly anything that he or she is convinced of resembles reality any longer. I don’t know much about Rachel Roberts, and she might not have reached this point yet; but there are many others who clearly have.

My two favourite examples of end-stage homeopathic delusionists are John Benneth and Dana Ullman. The final stage on the journey from ‘sceptic scientist’ to delusional disciple is characterised by an incessant stream of incoherent statements of vile nonsense that beggars belief. It is therefore easy to recognise and, because nobody can possibly take the delusionists seriously, they are best viewed as relatively harmless contributors to medical comedy.

Why does all of this matter?

Many homeopathy-fans are quasi-religious believers who, in my experience, have degressed way beyond reason. It is therefore a complete waste of time trying to reason with them. Initiated by a highly emotional epiphany, their faith cannot be shaken by rational arguments. Similar but usually less pronounced attitudes, I am afraid, can be observed in true believers of other alternative treatments as well (here I have chosen the example of homeopathy mainly because it is the area where things are most explicit).

True believers claim to have started out as sceptics and they often insist to be driven by a scientific mind. Yet I have never seen any evidence for these assumptions. On the contrary, for a relatively trivial episode to become a life-changing epiphany, the believer’s mind needs to be lamentably unscientific, unquestioning and simple.

In my experience, true believers will not change their mind; I have never seen this happening. However, progress might nevertheless be made, if we managed to instil a more (self-) questioning rationality and scientific attitudes into the minds of the next generations. In other words, we need better education in science and more training of critical thinking during their formative years.

What is ear acupressure?

Proponents claim that ear-acupressure is commonly used by Chinese medicine practitioners… It is like acupuncture but does not use needles. Instead, small round pellets are taped to points on one ear. Ear-acupressure is a non-invasive, painless, low cost therapy and no significant side effects have been reported.

Ok, but does it work?

There is a lot of money being made with the claim that ear acupressure (EAP) is effective, especially for smoking cessation; entrepreneurs sell gadgets for applying the pressure on the ear, and practitioners earn their living through telling their patients that this therapy is helpful. There are hundreds of websites with claims like this one: Auricular therapy (Acupressure therapy of the ear region) has been used successfully for Smoking cessation. Auriculotherapy is thought to be 7 times more powerful than other methods used for smoking cessation; a single auriculotherapy treatment has been shown to reduce smoking from 20 or more cigarettes a day down to 3 to 5 a day.

But what does the evidence show?

This new study investigated the efficacy of EAP as a stand-alone intervention for smoking cessation. Adult smokers were randomised to receive EAP specific for smoking cessation (SSEAP) or a non-specific EAP (NSEAP) intervention, EAP at points not typically used for smoking cessation. Participants received 8 weekly treatments and were requested to press the five pellets taped to one ear at least three times per day. Participants were followed up for three months. The primary outcome measures were a 7-day point-prevalence cessation rate confirmed by exhaled carbon monoxide and relief of nicotine withdrawal symptoms (NWS).

Forty-three adult smokers were randomly assigned to SSEAP (n = 20) or NSEAP (n = 23) groups. The dropout rate was high with 19 participants completing the treatments and 12 remaining at followup. One participant from the SSEAP group had confirmed cessation at week 8 and end of followup (5%), but there was no difference between groups for confirmed cessation or NWS. Adverse events were few and minor.

And is there a systematic review of the totality of the evidence?

Sure, the current Cochrane review arrives at the following conclusion: There is no consistent, bias-free evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation…

So?

Yes, we may well ask! If most TCM practitioners use EAP or acupuncture for smoking cessation telling their customers that it works (and earning good money when doing so), while the evidence fails to show that this is true, what should we say about such behaviour? I don’t know about you, but I find it thoroughly dishonest.

When we consult a health care provider because we feel unwell, the first step invariably is to arrive at a diagnosis. Sometimes this is fairly obvious but often it is not. Typically the health care provider will do a few tests to aid the process. This may involve doing some physical examinations, or taking a blood sample, or ordering some high tech investigation, like a scan, for instance.

All these tests have to fulfil certain criteria to be valid. The most basic of these is that repeated tests should produce roughly the same result. If not, the test is not reproducible, i.e. it is not better than pure guess-work.

Alternative practitioners often use diagnostic tests that are unknown in conventional medicine. But this fact does not mean that these test do not need to be as valid as any other test used in medicine. If the alternative tests are not reproducible, the diagnosis of the alternative practitioner is likely to be pure invention. And if the diagnosis is just a figment of imagination, the treatment aimed at curing it will be nonsense as well.

So, how reliable are those tests used by alternative practitioners? Amazingly, this fundamental question has attracted very little research. I have repeatedly investigated this area and found that, generally speaking, alternative diagnostic techniques are bogus. And because there is so little research, every new trial of alternative diagnostic methods is important.

A brand-new study assessed the inter-rater reliability of Ayurvedic pulse (nadi), tongue (jivha), and body constitution (prakriti) assessments. Fifteen registered Ayurvedic practitioners with 3-15 years of experience independently examined 20 healthy subjects. Subjects completed self-assessment questionnaires and software analyses for prakriti assessment. Weighted kappa statistics for all 105 pairs of practitioners were computed for the pulse, tongue, and prakriti data sets.

These pairwise kappas ranged from poor to slight, slight to fair, and fair to moderate for pulse, tongue, and prakriti assessments respectively. The average pairwise kappas for pulse, tongue, and prakriti were 0.07, 0.17, and 0.28, respectively. For each data set and pair of practitioners, the null hypothesis of random rating was rejected for just 12 pairs of practitioners for prakriti, one pair of practitioner for pulse examination, and no pairs of practitioner for tongue assessment.

The authors of this investigation conclude that  the results demonstrate a low level of reliability for all types of assessment made by doctors.

This is worrying, I think. It is comparable to a situation where you go to see your GP and he measures your blood pressure, or weight, or cholesterol, or any other parameter with a test that produces a different result each time someone tries to repeat it. Your blood pressure could be 160/90 when measured with this fictionally unreliable test and 110/ 60 when repeated two minutes later by the practice nurse, for instance. Any treatment based on such random numbers would be idiotic…and so, it seems, is any Ayurvedic treatment based on the pulse (nadi), tongue (jivha), and body constitution (prakriti).

Preston Long’s book has featured on this blog before. It is truly an important contribution to the literature on chiropractic, and I recommend that anyone with an interest in the subject should read it. Harriet Hall wrote about it even if you think you’ve heard it all before, there are revelations here that will be new to you, that will elicit surprise, indignation, and laughter.

In a way, an even better ‘recommendation’ comes from someone who previously made numerous vile comments on my blog, Eugen Roth: In my opinion the close relationship that the author has with both Stephen Barrett and Prof Edzard Ernst makes this book just another part of the witch hunt against chiropractic which was initiated more than 50 years ago… In my opinion Prof Ernst and Dr Barrett have continued this witch hunt over many years and have now teamed up with the author to try and give credence to their misguided message. I have no ‘close relationship’ with Long, and his book is not a witch hunt; it is a factual and fascinating of chiropractic abuse, fraud and make-belief.

Chiropractors are in many ways not that different from other health care professionals. Most of them, like Preston Long, go into their profession with all the very best intentions; they study hard what is being taught at Chiropractic College; they pass their exams and set up a practice to earn a decent living. During their career, they subsequently treat thousands of patients, and many of them perceive some benefit. Those who don’t fail to return and are quickly forgotten. Over the years, chiropractors thus become convinced that their interventions are effective.

In several other ways, however, chiropractors differ from conventional health care professionals. The most fundamental differences, I think, relate to the facts that chiropractic is based on the erroneous dogma of its founding fathers, and that chiropractors fail to abide by the rules of evidence-based medicine and practice. Preston Long writes eloquently about many other rules which some chiropractors fail to abide to in addition.

D.D. Palmer, the ‘inventor’ of chiropractic, believed that all human illness was the result of ‘subluxations’ of the spine which impeded the flow of the ‘Innate’ and required correction through spinal adjustments. To his followers, this new approach to healing was the only correct one – one that could cure all health problems. When these assumptions were first formulated, more than a century ago, they might not even have appeared entirely ridiculous; today, in the face of an immense amount of new knowledge, they can easily be disclosed as pure fantasy and chiropractors who believe in Palmer’s gospel have become the laughing stock of all health care professionals.

Some chiropractors are therefore struggling to free themselves from the burden of Palmer’s nonsensical notions. But this struggle rarely is entirely successful. After all, chiropractors have been to Chiropractic College where they memorised so many falsehoods, were kept from numerous important truths, and failed to acquire the essential skills of being (self-) critical. As a result, most find it virtually impossible to completely recover from the ‘brain-wash’ they were submitted to at the beginning of their career. And even if some courageous innovators, one day, managed to expunge all the falsehoods, myths and bogus claims from their profession, the obvious question would still be, how would such a ‘chiropractic minus woo’ differ from physiotherapy?

Most chiropractors have very little inkling what evidence-based practice amounts to; the good intentions that once motivated them have long given way to the need to make money. They are unable to critically assess their own activities, and all the bogus claims they have been exposed to are thus endlessly and profitably perpetuated. The principles of medical ethics have remained alien to most of them. In fact, ‘evidence-based chiropractic’ is an oxymoron: either you abide by evidence – in which case you cannot possibly conceive the idea of adjusting spinal ‘subluxations’ – or you believe in the myth of ‘subluxations’ in which case your practice is not evidence-based. Long is right, I think, when he states: the most efficient way to protect against chiropractic mistreatment is to avoid chiropractors altogether.

Whenever someone dares to criticise their bizarre interventions, chiropractors react with anger, personal attacks, defamation or even libel suits. One argument that is voiced with unfailing regularity in such a context is the claim that the critic lacks the knowledge, insight and experience to be credible. External criticism is thus usually completely ignored.

Preston Long has been a chiropractor himself, and therefore his authority, inside knowledge and expertise cannot be undermined in this fashion. He knows what he is writing about and has been an eye-witness to most of the abuses he reports in his book. His comments are not criticism from the outside; they are thoughtful insights, hand-on experiences and first-hand accounts of fraud and abuse which originate from the very heart of chiropractic. It is this fact that makes this book unique.

Preston Long’s book provides a most valuable perspective on the education, training, thinking, misunderstandings, wrong-doings and unethical behaviours of chiropractors. He also gives valuable instructions on how we can protect ourselves against chiropractic abuse. It would be nice to think that Long’s outstanding and in many ways constructive criticism might contribute to a much-needed and long over-due reformation of chiropractic; but I would not hold my breath.

This article was posted a few months ago. Then it mysteriously vanished without a trace; nobody knows quite why or how. Today I found an old draft on my computer, so I post the article again. It might not be identical with the original but it is close enough, I think.

Some time ago, Andy Lewis formulated a notion which he called ‘Ernst’s law’. Initially, I felt this was a bit o.t.t., then it made me chuckle, and eventually it got me thinking: could there be some truth in it, and if so, why?

The ‘law’ stipulates that, if a scientist investigating alternative medicine is much liked by the majority of enthusiasts in this field, the scientist is not doing his/her job properly. In any other area of healthcare, such a ‘law’ would be absurd. Why then does it seem to make sense, at least to some degree, in alternative medicine? The differences between any area of conventional and alternative medicine are diverse and profound.

Take neurology, for instance: here we have an organ-system, anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, etiology and nosology all related more or less specifically to this field and all based on facts, rigorous science and substantial evidence. None of this knowledge, science and evidence is static, but each has evolved and can be predicted to do so in future. What we knew about neurology 50 years ago, for example, was dramatically different from what we know today. Scientific discovery discoveries in neurology link up with the knowledge gathered in other areas of medicine to generate a (more or less) complete bigger picture.

In alternative medicine or any single branch thereof, we have no specific organ-system, anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, etiology or nosology to speak of. We also have few notions that are transferable from one branch of alternative medicine to another – on the contrary, the assumptions of homeopathy, for example, are in overt contradiction to those of acupuncture which, in turn, are out of sync with those of reflexology, aromatherapy and Reiki.

Instead, each branch of alternative medicine has its own axioms that are largely detached from reality or, indeed, from the axioms of other branches of alternative medicine. In acupuncture, for instance, we have concepts such as yin and yang, qi, meridians and acupuncture points, and there is hardly any development of these concepts. This renders them akin to dogmas, and there is no chance in hell that the combination of all the branches of alternative medicine would add up to provide a sensible ‘bigger picture’.

If a scientist were to instill scientific, critical, progressive thought in a field like neurology, thus overthrowing current concepts and assumptions, they would be greeted with open arms among many like-minded researchers who all pursue the aim of advancing their field and contributing to the knowledge base by overturning wrong assumptions and discovering new truths. If researchers were to spend their time trying to analyse the concepts or treatments of alternative medicine, thus overthrowing current concepts and assumptions, they would not only not be appreciated by the majority of the experts working in this field, they would be castigated for their actions.

If a scientist dedicated decades of hard work to the rigorous assessment of alternative medicine, that person would become a thorn in the flesh of believers. Instead of welcoming him with open arms, some disappointed enthusiasts of alternative treatments might even pay for defaming them.

On the other hand, if a researcher merely misused the tools of science to confirm the implausible assumptions of alternative medicine, he would quickly become the celebrated ‘heroes’ of this field.

This is the bizarre phenomenon that ‘Ernst’s law’ seems to capture quite well – and this is why I believe the ‘law’ is worth more than a laugh and a chuckle. In fact, ‘Ernst’s law’ might even describe the depressing reality of retrograde thinking in alternative medicine more accurately than most of us care to admit.

What do my readers feel? Their comments following this blog may well confirm or refute my theory.

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