MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

pseudo-science

The efficacy or effectiveness of medical interventions is, of course, best tested in clinical trials. The principle of a clinical trial is fairly simple: typically, a group of patients is divided (preferably at random) into two subgroups, one (the ‘verum’ group) is treated with the experimental treatment and the other (the ‘control’ group) with another option (often a placebo), and the eventual outcomes of the two groups is compared. If done well, such studies are able to exclude biases and confounding factors such that their findings allow causal inference. In other words, they can tell us whether an outcome was caused by the intervention per se or by some other factor such as the natural history of the disease, regression towards the mean etc.

A clinical trial is a research tool for testing hypotheses; strictly speaking, it tests the ‘null-hypothesis’: “the experimental treatment generates the same outcomes as the treatment of the control group”. If the trial shows no difference between the outcomes of the two groups, the null-hypothesis is confirmed. In this case, we commonly speak of a negative result. If the experimental treatment was better than the control treatment, the null-hypothesis is rejected, and we commonly speak of a positive result. In other words, clinical trials can only generate positive or negative results, because the null-hypothesis must either be confirmed or rejected – there are no grey tones between the black of a negative and the white of a positive study.

For enthusiasts of alternative medicine, this can create a dilemma, particularly if there are lots of published studies with negative results. In this case, the totality of the available trial evidence is negative which means the treatment in question cannot be characterised as effective. It goes without saying that such an overall conclusion rubs the proponents of that therapy the wrong way. Consequently, they might look for ways to avoid this scenario.

One fairly obvious way of achieving this aim is to simply re-categorise the results. What, if we invented a new category? What, if we called some of the negative studies by a different name? What about NON-CONCLUSIVE?

That would be brilliant, wouldn’t it. We might end up with a simple statistic where the majority of the evidence is, after all, positive. And this, of course, would give the impression that the ineffective treatment in question is effective!

How exactly do we do this? We continue to call positive studies POSITIVE; we then call studies where the experimental treatment generated worst results than the control treatment (usually a placebo) NEGATIVE; and finally we call those studies where the experimental treatment created outcomes which were not different from placebo NON-CONCLUSIVE.

In the realm of alternative medicine, this ‘non-conclusive result’ method has recently become incredibly popular . Take homeopathy, for instance. The Faculty of Homeopathy proudly claim the following about clinical trials of homeopathy: Up to the end of 2011, there have been 164 peer-reviewed papers reporting randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in homeopathy. This represents research in 89 different medical conditions. Of those 164 RCT papers, 71 (43%) were positive, 9 (6%) negative and 80 (49%) non-conclusive.

This misleading nonsense was, of course, warmly received by homeopaths. The British Homeopathic Association, like many other organisations and individuals with an axe to grind lapped up the message and promptly repeated it: The body of evidence that exists shows that much more investigation is required – 43% of all the randomised controlled trials carried out have been positive, 6% negative and 49% inconclusive.

Let’s be clear what has happened here: the true percentage figures seem to show that 43% of studies (mostly of poor quality) suggest a positive result for homeopathy, while 57% of them (on average the ones of better quality) were negative. In other words, the majority of this evidence is negative. If we conducted a proper systematic review of this body of evidence, we would, of course, have to account for the quality of each study, and in this case we would have to conclude that homeopathy is not supported by sound evidence of effectiveness.

The little trick of applying the ‘NON-CONCLUSIVE’ method has thus turned this overall result upside down: black has become white! No wonder that it is so popular with proponents of all sorts of bogus treatments.

Whenever a new trial of an alternative intervention emerges which fails to confirm the wishful thinking of the proponents of that therapy, the world of alternative medicine is in turmoil. What can be done about yet another piece of unfavourable evidence? The easiest solution would be to ignore it, of course – and this is precisely what is often tried. But this tactic usually proves to be unsatisfactory; it does not neutralise the new evidence, and each time someone brings it up, one has to stick one’s head back into the sand. Rather than denying its existence, it would be preferable to have a tool which invalidates the study in question once and for all.

The ‘fatal flaw’ solution is simpler than anticipated! Alternative treatments are ‘very special’, and this notion must be emphasised, blown up beyond all proportions and used cleverly to discredit studies with unfavourable outcomes: the trick is simply to claim that studies with unfavourable results have a ‘fatal flaw’ in the way the alternative treatment was applied. As only the experts in the ‘very special’ treatment in question are able to judge the adequacy of their therapy, nobody is allowed to doubt their verdict.

Take acupuncture, for instance; it is an ancient ‘art’ which only the very best will ever master – at least that is what we are being told. So, all the proponents need to do in order to invalidate a trial, is read the methods section of the paper in full detail and state ‘ex cathedra’ that the way acupuncture was done in this particular study is completely ridiculous. The wrong points were stimulated, or the right points were stimulated but not long enough [or too long], or the needling was too deep [or too shallow], or the type of stimulus employed was not as recommended by TCM experts, or the contra-indications were not observed etc. etc.

As nobody can tell a correct acupuncture from an incorrect one, this ‘fatal flaw’ method is fairly fool-proof. It is also ever so simple: acupuncture-fans do not necessarily study hard to find the ‘fatal flaw’, they only have to look at the result of a study – if it was favourable, the treatment was obviously done perfectly by highly experienced experts; if it was unfavourable, the therapists clearly must have been morons who picked up their acupuncture skills in a single weekend course. The reasons for this judgement can always be found or, if all else fails, invented.

And the end-result of the ‘fatal flaw’ method is most satisfactory; what is more, it can be applied to all alternative therapies – homeopathy, herbal medicine, reflexology, Reiki healing, colonic irrigation…the method works for all of them! What is even more, the ‘fatal flaw’ method is adaptable to other aspects of scientific investigations such that it fits every conceivable circumstance.

An article documenting the ‘fatal flaw’ has to be published, of course – but this is no problem! There are dozens of dodgy alternative medicine journals which are only too keen to print even the most far-fetched nonsense as long as it promotes alternative medicine in some way. Once this paper is published, the proponents of the therapy in question have a comfortable default position to rely on each time someone cites the unfavourable study: “WHAT NOT THAT STUDY AGAIN! THE TREATMENT HAS BEEN SHOWN TO BE ALL WRONG. NOBODY CAN EXPECT GOOD RESULTS FROM A THERAPY THAT WAS NOT CORRECTLY ADMINISTERED. IF YOU DON’T HAVE BETTER STUDIES TO SUPPORT YOUR ARGUMENTS, YOU BETTER SHUT UP.”

There might, in fact, be better studies – but chances are that the ‘other side’ has already documented a ‘fatal flaw’ in them too.

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).

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