MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

quackery

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.

Continuing on the theme from my previous post, a website of a homeopath (and member of the UK ‘Society of Homeopaths’) caught my attention. In in it, Neil Spence makes a wide range of far-reaching statements. Because they seem rather typical of the claims made by homeopaths, I intent to scrutinize them in this post. For clarity, I put the (unaltered and unabbreviated) text from Neil Spence’s site in italics, while my own comments are in Roman print.

The holistic model of health says all disease comes from a disturbance in the vitality (life force) of the body. The energetic disturbance creates symptoms in the mind, the emotions and the physical body. Each patient has their own store of how this disturbance in vitality came about and each person has individual symptoms.

What is a ‘holistic model of health’, I wonder? Holism in health care means to treat patients as whole individuals which is a hallmark of any good health care; this means that all good medicine is holistic.

Holism and vitalism are two separate things entirely. Vitalism is the obsolete notion of a vital force or energy that determines our health. ‘Disturbances in vitality’ are not the cause of illness.

We will attempt, as far as possible, to treat the whole person and to change the conditions that created your susceptibility to cancer.

Much of the susceptibility to cancer is genetically determined and cannot be altered homeopathically.

Using Homeopathy to treat people with cancer

Homeopathic treatment can help someone with cancer. It can also be helpful for people who have a history of cancer in their family or have cared for a relative or friend with cancer. There are a number of methods of using homeopathic remedies to help people with cancer.

There is no good evidence that homeopathic remedies are effective for cancer patients or their carers.

Constitutional treatment: Treat the person who suffers the illness. A constitutional homeopathic remedy suits your nature as a person and its symptom picture reflects the unique expression of your symptoms. It can arouse the bodyʼs natural ability to heal itself and this can have profound benefits. It is appropriate if your vitality is strong.

There is no evidence that constitutional homeopathic treatments increase the body’s self-healing ability.

Stimulate the immune system to fight cancer: Remedies can be used to help the body fight the cancer, using specific homeopathic remedies called nosodes. A second treatment may be used to support the weakened organ. This method is most useful for people who are not using chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

There is no evidence that nosodes or other homeopathic remedies have any effect on the immune system ( – if they did, they would be contra-indicated for people suffering from auto-immune diseases).

Support the failing organs and the functions of the body that are not working: Remedies can be used to support weakened organs; to help with appetite; to help sleep and to treat sleep disturbances; to reduce the toxic symptoms; to help the body eliminate toxins. These treatments are helpful to people undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

For none of these claims is there good evidence; they are pure fantasy. The notion that homeopathy can help eliminate toxins is so wide-spread that it merits a further comment. It would be easy to measure such a detoxifying effect, but there is no evidence that it exists. Moreover, I would question whether, in the particular situation of a cancer patient on chemotherapy, a hastened elimination of the toxin (= chemotherapeutic agent) would be desirable; it would merely diminish the efficacy of the chemotherapy and reduce the chances of a cure.

Treat the pain: Homeopathic remedies can be very effective in aiding pain control. Remedies such as calendula can be effective in situations of intractable pain. If the cancer is at the terminal stage, remedies can be used to increase the quality of life. These remedies are palliative and can assist the patient keep mentally and emotionally alert so they can have quality time with loved ones.

Where is the evidence? Pain can obviously be a serious problem for cancer patients, and the notion that calendula in homeopathic dilutions reduces pain such that it significantly improves quality of life is laughable. Conventional medicine has powerful drugs to alleviate cancer pain but even they sometimes do not suffice to make patients pain-free.

Homeopathy in conjunction with other therapies

When a patient chooses to use chemotherapy or radiotherapy to treat their cancer the homeopath will prescribe remedies to support the body and ease the side-effects. Remedies can also be very useful after surgery to encourage the body to heal and allow greater mobility at an early stage.

Again no good evidence exists to support these claims – pure fantasy.

Other therapies can complement homeopathy but the homeopath will advise that you do not use every therapy just because they are available. It may be better to choose two or perhaps three main approaches to improving your health and ensure each one has positive effects that suit you very well.

Is he saying that cancer patients are best advised to listen to a homeopath rather than to their oncology-team? Is he encouraging them to not use all possible mainstream options available? If so, he is most irresponsible.

Each person will have different needs. It is always appropriate to change your diet. Nutritional and dietary advice is of the utmost importance to support the bodyʼs healing process. Cancer has many symptoms of disturbed metabolism and a poor diet has often contributed to the disturbance in the body that allowed the cancer to flourish. It is essential to remedy this situation. Nutritional advice puts you back in charge of your body; with good homeopathic treatments this provides the basis for improving your health.

Dietary advice can be useful and is therefore routinely provided by professionals who understand this subject much better than the average homeopath.

CONCLUSION

The thought that some cancer patients might be following such recommendations is most disturbing. Advice of this nature has doubtlessly the potential to significantly shorten the life and decrease the well-being of cancer patients. People who recommend treatments that clearly harm vulnerable patients are charlatans who should not be allowed to treat patients.

THERE WILL NEVER BE AN ALTERNATIVE CANCER CURE

This statement contradicts all those thousands of messages on the Internet that pretend otherwise. Far too many ‘entrepreneurs’ are trying to exploit desperate cancer patients by making claims about alternative cancer ‘cures’ ranging from shark oil to laetrile and from Essiac to mistletoe. The truth is that none of them are anything other than bogus.

Why? Let me explain.

If ever a curative cancer treatment emerged from the realm of alternative medicine that showed any promise at all, it would be very quickly researched by scientists and, if the results were positive, instantly adopted by mainstream oncology. The notion of an alternative cancer cure is therefore a contradiction in terms. It implies that oncologists are mean bastards who would, in the face of immense suffering, reject a promising cure simply because it did not originate from their own ranks.

BUT THAT DOES NOT NECESSARILY MEAN THAT ALTERNATIVE CANCER TREATMENTS ARE USELESS

So, let’s forget about alternative cancer ‘cures’ and let’s once and for all declare the people who sell or promote them as charlatans of the worst type. But some alternative therapies might nevertheless have a role in oncology – not as curative treatments but as supportive or palliative therapies.

The aim of supportive or palliative cancer care is not to cure the disease but to ease the suffering of cancer patients. According to my own research, promising evidence exists in this context, for instance, for massage, guided imagery, Co-enzyme Q10, acupuncture for nausea, and relaxation therapies. For other alternative therapies, the evidence is not supportive, e.g. reflexology, tai chi, homeopathy, spiritual healing, acupuncture for pain-relief, and aromatherapy.

So, in the realm of supportive and palliative care there is both encouraging as well as disappointing evidence. But what amazes me over and over again is the fact that the majority of cancer centres employing alternative therapies seem to bother very little about the evidence; they tend to use a weird mix of treatments regardless of whether they are backed by evidence or not. If patients like them, all is fine, they seem to think. I find this argument worrying.

Of course, every measure that increases the well-being of cancer patients must be welcome. But this should not mean that we disregard priorities or adopt any quackery that is on offer. In the interest of patients, we need to spend the available resources in the most effective ways. Those who argue that a bit of Reiki or reflexology, for example, is useful – if only via a non-specific (placebo) effects – seem to forget that we do not require quackery for patients to benefit from a placebo-response. An evidence-based treatment that is administered with kindness and compassion also generates specific non-specific effects. In addition, such treatments also generate specific effects. Therefore it would be a disservice to patients to merely rely on the non-specific effects of bogus treatments, even if the patients do experience some benefit from them.

ALTERNATIVE ‘PAMPERING’ AS A COMPENSATION FOR INADEQUACIES IN THE SYSTEM?

So, why are unproven or disproven treatments like Reiki or reflexology so popular for cancer palliation? This question has puzzled me for years, and I sometimes wonder whether some oncologists’ tolerance of quackery is not an attempt to compensate for any inadequacies within the routine service they deliver to their patients. Sub-standard care, unappetising food, insufficient pain-control, lack of time and compassion as well as other problems undoubtedly exist in some cancer units. It might be tempting to assume that such deficiencies can be compensated by a little pampering from a reflexologist or Reiki master. And it might be easier to hire a few alternative therapists for treating patients with agreeable yet ineffective interventions than to remedy the deficits that may exist in basic conventional care.

But this strategy would be wrong, unethical and counter-productive. Empathy, sympathy and compassion are core features of conventional care and must not be delegated to quacks.

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.

Even relatively well-informed people tend to think that homeopathy might be quirky and useless but, so what, it cannot do any harm. This is perhaps true for the homeopathic remedies but it does certainly not apply to the homeopaths. As soon as there is a public health problem, homeopaths claim that their approach offers a solution – never mind the evidence to the contrary. Just look at what they presently try to sell us in terms of cold and flu treatments!

The often criminal fight of homeopaths against public health is nowhere clearer than with their never-ending propaganda against the most successful public health measure in the history of medicine, immunisation. Some professional organisations of homeopathy have issued politically correct statements about this and thus feel they are out of the firing line. But, as far as I can see, most homeopaths are against vaccinations. Their arguments are wilfully misguided; here are just a few examples:

  • It is well known that measles is an important development milestone in the life and maturing processes in children.  Why would anybody want to stop or delay the maturation processes of children and of their immune systems?
  • Homoeopathy offers an option for disease prevention and cure.  There is scientific evidence in favour of homoeopathy for prevention of diseases.
  • Seek out homeopathic, osteopathic, naturopathic, or Chinese medical constitutional treatment to boost your child’s immune system and help them be as healthy as they can be.
  • If your children do get sick, use homeopathy to help their immune system get over it. Homeopathy is very effective in epidemics of acute illness. Either see a homeopath, buy a book on homeopathic acute care, or take a class on acute homeopathic prescribing.
  • It is possible to prevent post-vaccination damage by giving the homeopathic dilution of the vaccine shortly before and    after the vaccination in the C200 dilution.
  • there are many recorded cases of people making dramatic  recoveries with homeopathic medicines following a bad reaction to a  vaccination. Expert advice from a registered homeopath is usually  required.
  • As you would keep your children away from toxic chemicals in the environment as much as possible, inform yourself about the toxicity of the solutions that are being injected into their bloodstream. It’s up to you to find the information: no one loves your children the way you do.

If you think I cherry-picked these quotes, you are mistaken. I simply used the citations as they appeared on my computer screen after a simple Google search. You might try this yourself because there are hundreds, if not thousands more to be discovered.

A typical and interesting example of a homeopathic anti-vaccinationist is Oksana Frolov, D.Hom. graduate of Saint Petersburg, Russia, I.P.Pavlov State Medical University, General Medicine, and graduate of Los Angeles School of Homeopathy. She states that, although I do hold a medical degree, I am not a licensed medical health provider in the United States. As a homeopathic practitioner, I will provide you with the treatment which is alternative or complementary to healing arts that are licensed by the State of California. On her blog, she provides detailed advice for people who might be uncertain whether to vaccinate their children: immunisation… can cause some very serious side effects including permanent brain damage, epilepsy, autism, and mental retardation. With so many vaccinations being required, doctors often have to administer several shots at a time, which can often result in a disaster.  Vaccines, along with the elements that are supposed to create the antibodies, also contain mercury, aluminum, formaldehyde, animal tissue, animal blood, human cell from aborted babies, potatoes, yeast, lactose, phenol, antibiotics and unrelated species of germs that inadvertently get into the vaccines. Do you really want all this to be injected into your child just to prevent him or her from having a chicken pox? Vaccines are said to work by stimulating the body to produce antibodies, which are supposed to protect us from an invasion of harmful germs. Childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox, affect the immune system in a way that makes most people immune to them for the rest of their lives. Vaccinations, on the other hand, create an artificial immunity that wears off and allows the person to catch the disease later in life….

Homeopathy has proved to be very effective in treatment of childhood diseases, as well as other infections. From its earliest days, homeopathy has been able to treat epidemic disease, such as cholera, typhus, yellow fever, and diphtheria, with a substantial rate of success, when compared to conventional treatments. 

Doctors who practice homeopathy usually claim that only non-medically qualified homeopaths hold such deranged views. Dr Frolov shows us that this assumption is clearly not true. In my experience, most homeopaths, medical or not, advise their patients against immunizations or are at least very cagey about this subject in order to raise doubts in concerned parents. Professional organisations of homeopaths usually hide behind some powerless statement in favour of informed choice; yet they must be well-aware that many of their members fail to abide by it. And what do they do about it? Nothing!

Yes, I am afraid the fight of many homeopaths against public health is active, incessant and often criminal. Of course, they do not for one second believe that they are doing anything wrong; on the contrary, they are convinced of their good intentions. As Bert Brecht once wrote, THE OPPOSITE OF GOOD IS NOT EVIL, BUT GOOD INTENTIONS.

Web-sites have become a leading source of information on health matters. This is particularly true in the realm of alternative medicine. Conventional health care professionals often know too little about this subject to advise their patients, and alternative practitioners are usually too biased to be trusted. So many consumers turn to the Internet and hope that it offers information which is reliable. But is it?

American pharmacists published a study evaluating the quality of on-line information on herbal supplements. They conducted a search of 13 common herbals – including black cohosh, echinacea, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, green tea, kava, saw palmetto, and St John’s wort – and reviewed the top 50 Web sites for each using a Google search. Subsequently, they analysed clinical claims, warnings, and other safety information.

A total of 1179 Web sites were examined in this way. Less than 8% of retail sites provided information regarding potential adverse effects, drug interactions, and other safety information; only 10.5% recommended consultation with a healthcare professional. Less than 3% cited scientific literature to support their claims.

The authors’ conclusions were worrying: Key safety information is still lacking from many online sources of herbal information. Certain nonretail site types may be more reliable, but physicians and other healthcare professionals should be aware of the variable quality of these sites to help patients make more informed decisions.

Having conducted my fair share of similar research (e.g. here or here or here or here), I can only concur with these conclusions. When it comes to health care, the Internet is a scary place! In the realm of alternative medicine, it is dominated by people who seem not to care much about anything other than their profits.

But what can be done to change this situation? How can we protect the public from Internet-charlatans? How can one control the Internet? I wish I knew! But there are nevertheless means of directing consumers to those sites which do offer reliable information. Kite-marking high quality sites might be one way of achieving this. This task would, of course, be huge and difficult, but in the interest of public safety, governments and other official institutions should consider tackling it.

Therapeutic Touch is an alternative therapy which is based on the notion of ‘energy healing’; it is thus akin to Reiki and other forms of spiritual healing. A recent survey from Canada suggested that such treatments are incredibly popular: over 50% of the families that were asked admitted using them for kids suffering from cancer.

The therapists using Therapeutic Touch, mostly nurses, believe to be able to channel ‘healing energy’ into the body of the patient which, in turn, is thought to stimulate the patient’s self-healing potential. Proponents of Therapeutic Touch claim that it is effective for a very wide range of conditions. Here is what one typical website by advocates states: As a healing modality Therapeutic Touch has been shown to be very effective in decreasing anxiety, decreasing stress, evoking the relaxation response, decreasing pain, and promoting wound healing. Therapeutic Touch as a method of healing is used by both professionals in the health field and laymen in the community.

There is a surprising amount of research on Therapeutic Touch. Unfortunately most of it is fatally flawed. It is therefore refreshing to see a new clinical study with a rigorous and straight forward design.

The objective of this trial was to determine whether Therapeutic Touch is efficacious in decreasing pain in preterm neonates. Fifty-five infants < 30 weeks’ gestational age participated in a randomized control trial in two neonatal intensive care units. Immediately before and after a painful heel lance procedure, the therapist performed non-tactile Therapeutic Touch with the infant behind curtains. In the sham condition, the therapist stood by the incubator without performing Therapeutic Touch. The Premature Infant Pain Profile was used for measuring pain and time for heart rate to return to baseline during recovery. Heart rate variability and stress response were secondary outcomes.

The results showed no group differences in any of the outcome measures. Mean Premature Infant Pain Profile scores across 2 minutes of heel lance procedure in 30-second blocks ranged from 7.92 to 8.98 in the Therapeutic Touch group and 7.64 to 8.46 in the sham group. The authors concluded that Therapeutic Touch given immediately before and after heel lance has no comforting effect in preterm neonates. Other effective strategies involving actual touch should be considered.

These findings are hardly surprising considering the implausibility of the ‘principles’ that underlie Therapeutic Touch. Nobody has so far been able to measure the mystical ‘energy’ that is the basis of this treatment. The only Cochrane review failed to show that Therapeutic touch works beyond placebo: There is no robust evidence that TT promotes healing of acute wounds.

Why then is Therapeutic Touch so popular? Part of the answer to this question might lie here: New Age spiritualism has co-opted some of the language of physics, including the language of quantum mechanics, in its quest to make ancient metaphysics sound like respectable science. The New Age preaches enhancing your vital energy, tapping into the subtle energy of the universe,or manipulating your biofield so that you can be happy, fulfilled, successful, and lovable, and so life can be meaningful, significant, and endless. The New Age promises you the power to heal the sick and create reality according to your will, as if you were a god.

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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