Can intercessory prayer improve the symptoms of sick people?
Why should it? It’s utterly implausible!
Because the clinical evidence says so?
No, the current Cochrane review concluded that [the] findings are equivocal and, although some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer, the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer. We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.
Yet, not all seem to agree with this; and some even continue to investigate prayer as a medical therpy.
For this new study (published in EBCAM), the Iranian investigators randomly assigned 92 patients in 2 groups to receive either 40 mg of propranolol twice a day for 2 month (group “A”) or 40 mg of propranolol twice a day for 2 months with prayer (group “B”). At the beginning of study and 3 months after intervention, patients’ pain was measured using the visual analogue scale.
All patients who participate in present study were Muslim. At the beginning of study and before intervention, the mean score of pain in patients in groups A and B were 5.7 ± 1.6 and 6.5 ± 1.9, respectively. According to results of independent t test, mean score of pain intensity at the beginning of study were similar between patients in 2 groups (P > .05). Three month after intervention, mean score of pain intensity decreased in patients in both groups. At this time, the mean scores of pain intensity were 5.4 ± 1.1 and 4.2 ± 2.3 in patients in groups A and B, respectively. This difference between groups was statistically significant (P < .001).
The above figure shows the pain score in patients before and after the intervention.
The authors concluded that the present study revealed that prayer can be used as a nonpharmacologic pain coping strategy in addition to pharmacologic intervention for this group of patients.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. This study is, in fact, extraordinary – but only in the sense of being extraordinarily poor, or at least it is extraordinary in its quality of reporting. For instance, all we learn in the full text article about the two treatments applied to the patient groups is this: “The prayer group participated in an 8-week, weekly, intercessory prayer program with each session lasting 45 minutes. Pain reduction was measured at baseline and after 3 months, by registered nurses who were specialist in pain management and did not know which patients were in which groups (control or intervention), using a visual analogue scale.”
Intercessory prayer is the act of praying on behalf of others. This mans that the patients receiving prayer might have been unaware of being ‘treated’. In this case, the patients could have been adequately blinded. But this is not made clear in the article.
More importantly perhaps, the authors fail to provide any numeric results. All that we are given is the above figure. It is not possible therefore to run any type of check on the data. We are simply asked to believe what the authors have written. I for one have great difficulties in doing so. All I do believe in relation to this article is that
- the journal EBCAM is utter trash,
- constantly publishing rubbish is unethical and a disservice to everyone,
- prayer does not need further research of this nature,
- and poor studies often generate false-positive findings.
On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed the issues around para-normal or spiritual healing practices. In one of these posts I concluded that these treatments are:
- utterly implausible
- not supported by good clinical evidence.
What follows seems as simple as it is indisputable: energy healing is nonsense and does not merit further research.
Yet both research and – more importantly – the practice of spiritual healing continue, not only in the developed world but even more so in poor and under-developed countries.
Traditional healers, known in Rwanda as Abarangi or Abacwezi claim to use their spiritual powers to heal sick patients. Recently, they urged their government to acknowledge them through proper regulation. Jean-Bosco Kajongi, the leader of the healers in Rwanda, said Abahereza are like doctors who have been selected by angels. “Umuhereza is someone who gets power from God to treat different diseases but particularly demonic possession such as ‘Amahembe’ and ‘Imandwa’. Sometimes, doctors detect something in the body, do surgery but find nothing. But Abarangi can identify the disease beforehand and heal it. Thus, we want to have legal personality and work with modern doctors because what we cure, they cannot even see it. Therefore, mortality rate would decrease.”
Abahereza claim to have God-given powers to heal any disease, provided that the patient has belief in their powers. Claudine Uwamahoro, a resident of Rulindo district is one of them. “Last year, I was transferred to Kanombe Military Hospital to have my leg cut off after they diagnosed me with cancer. Abarangi told me it was not cancer but rather ‘Imandwa.’ They treated me but I didn’t get healed immediately because I had not yet heeded God’s commandment because they do not use any medicines but only requires you to obey God and respect his commandments. Now my leg has been healed… Like Jesus came to save us so that we don’t perish, Umurangi also came so that we do not die of diseases that normal medicines cannot treat.”
Another patient agrees: “In 1983, I played football but later, Imandwa disabled me and my legs were paralyzed. I went to various hospitals and was given an assortment of medicines but they could not help. I always had fever; Doctors treated me but could not identify what kind of disease it really was. I even went to traditional healers but they didn’t have a solution. Pastors and priests prayed for me but in vain. Sorcerers also tried but failed. I was possessed by Imandwa and I was cured by Umurangi from Kirehe District. I believe that they have the power from God and when you respect their conditions, they treat and cure you completely.”
According to Alexia Mukahirwa, another witness, Umurangi is very powerful. “I was sick for 16 years. I went to different places and met many doctors. Some told me I had blood infection, others said it was stomach and intestinal infections. I consumed numberless medicines that never helped until I saw the power of Abarangi and believed them. Some people said that I had HIV/AIDS but it was not true. I only weighed 42 kilograms but now I have 68. Abarangi are powerful and may God bless them.”
James Mugabo, who is an “Umuhereza” or priest, said: “Before colonialism, people had their way of treating illness. But we have abandoned everything yet we should not.” The Director General of clinical services in the Ministry of Health responded by stating: “The law and policy are being drafted and will help us to know who does what kind of medicine and their identity. From that, we will know where to localize Abarangi in traditional or alternative.”
Hearing such things, we might smile and think ‘that’s Rwanda – this would not happen in developed countries’. But sadly, it does! These things happen everywhere. I know of healing ceremonies in the UK and the US that are embarrassingly similar to the ones in Rwanda – remember, for instance, the scenes seen on TV where Donald Trump was blessed by some evangelicals to receive the ability to win the election? And now they will probably claim that it worked!
Nothing to do with alternative medicine, you say? Perhaps this website on ‘spiritual homeopathy’ is more relevant then:
START OF QUOTE
What is spiritual homeopathy? It is based on the principle that “like cures like” and “wounds heal wounds” — the underlying wisdom of support groups. A Biblical story which illustrates this principle takes place on the ancient shepherding people’s journey through the desert. When they grew impatient and complained bitterly to Moses, God sent venomous snakes to bite the people. Many died. When the people confessed their sin, God told Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole. Those who were bitten and focused on the bronze snake did not die; they looked and lived.
Many years later Jesus said of his mission, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Chosen One must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes on the Chosen One might have eternal life.” Jesus’ disciple Peter wrote, “By Christ’s wounds you are healed.” In “The Angel that Troubled the Waters,” Thornton Wilder wrote: “Without your wound where would your power be? … In love’s service only the wounded can serve.”
As the Thanksgiving and Christmas season approaches, spiritual homeopathy offers healing to all – because the Babe in the Manger is also the Wounded Healer
END OF QUOTE
I think I rest my case.
In 2008, I published a paper entitled ‘CHIROPRACTIC, A CRITICAL EVALUATION’ where I reviewed most aspects of this subject, including the historical context. Here is the passage about the history of chiropractic. I believe it is relevant to much of the current discussions about the value or otherwise of chiropractic.
The history of chiropractic is “rooted in quasi-mystical concepts.” Bone-setters of various types are part of the folk medicine of most cultures, and bone-setting also formed the basis on which chiropractic developed.
The birthday of chiropractic is said to be September 18, 1895. On this day, D.D. Palmer manipulated the spine of a deaf janitor by the name of Harvey Lillard, allegedly curing him of his deafness. Palmer’s second patient, a man suffering from heart disease, was also cured. About one year later, Palmer opened the first school of chiropractic. There is evidence to suggest that D.D. Palmer had learned manipulative techniques from Andrew Taylor Still, the founder of osteopathy. He combined the skills of a bone-setter with the background of a magnetic healer and claimed that “chiropractic was not evolved from medicine or any other method, except that of magnetic.” He coined the term “innate intelligence” (or “innate”) for the assumed “energy” or “vital force,” which, according to the magnetic healers of that time, enables the body to heal itself. The “innate” defies quantification. “Chiropractic is based on a metaphysical epistemology that is not amenable to positivist research or experiment.”
The “innate” is said to regulate all body functions but, in the presence of “vertebral subluxation,” it cannot function adequately. Chiropractors therefore developed spinal manipulations to correct such subluxations, which, in their view, block the flow of the “innate.” Chiropractic is “a system of healing based on the premise that the body requires unobstructed flow through the nervous system of innate intelligence.” Anyone who did not believe in the “innate” or in “subluxations” was said to have no legitimate role in chiropractic.
“Innate intelligence” evolved as a theological concept, the representative of Universal Intelligence ( = God) within each person. D.D. Palmer was convinced he had discovered a natural law that pertained to human health in the most general terms. Originally, manipulation was not a technique for treating spinal or musculoskeletal problems, it was a cure for all human illness: “95% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae, the remainder by luxations of other joints.” Early chiropractic pamphlets hardly mention back pain or neck pain, but assert that, “chiropractic could address ailments such as insanity, sexual dysfunction, measles and influenza.” D.D. Palmer was convinced that he had “created a science of principles that has existed as long as the vertebra.” Chiropractors envision man as a microcosm of the universe where “innate intelligence” determines human health as much as “universal intelligence” governs the cosmos; the discovery of the “innate intelligence” represents a discovery of the first order, “a reflection of a critical law that God used to govern natural phenomena.”
Early chiropractic displayed many characteristics of a religion. Both D.D. Palmer and his son, B.J. Palmer, seriously considered establishing chiropractic as a religion. Chiropractic “incorporated vitalistic concepts of an innate intelligence with religious concepts of universal intelligence,” which substituted for science. D.D. Palmer declared that he had discovered the answer to the timeworn question, “What is life?” and added that chiropractic made “this stage of existence much more efficient in its preparation for the next step – the life beyond.”
Most early and many of today’s chiropractors agree: “Men do not cure. It is that inherent power (derived from the creator) that causes wounds to heal, or a part to be repaired. The Creator…uses the chiropractor as a tool…chiropractic philosophy is truly the missing link between Religion or Power of the various religions.” Today, some chiropractors continue to relate the “innate” to God. Others, however, warn not to “dwindle or dwarf chiropractic by making a religion out of a technique.”
Initially, the success of chiropractic was considerable. By 1925, more than 80 chiropractic schools had been established in the United States. Most were “diploma mills” offering an “easy way to make money,” and many “were at one another’s throats.” Chiropractors believed they had established their own form of science, which emphasized observation rather than experimentation, a vitalistic rather than mechanistic philosophy, and a mutually supportive rather than antagonist relationship between science and religion. The gap between conventional medicine and chiropractic thus widened “from a fissure into a canyon.” The rivalry was not confined to conventional medicine; “many osteopaths asserted that chiropractic was a bastardized version of osteopathy.”
Rather than arguing over issues such as efficacy, education, or professional authority, the American Medical Association insisted that all competent health care providers must have adequate knowledge of the essential subjects such as anatomy, physiology, pathology, chemistry, and bacteriology. By that token, the American Medical Association claimed, chiropractors were not fit for practice. Some “martyrs,” including D.D. Palmer himself, went to jail for practicing medicine without a licence.
Chiropractors countered that doctors were merely defending their patch for obvious financial reasons (ironically, chiropractors today often earn more than conventional doctors), that orthodox science was morally corrupt and lacked open-mindedness. They attacked the “germo-anti-toxins-vaxiradi-electro-microbioslush death producers” and promised a medicine “destined to the grandest and greatest of this or any age.”
Eventually, the escalating battle against the medical establishment was won in “the trial of the century.” In 1987, sections of the U.S. medical establishment were found “guilty of conspiracy against chiropractors,” a decision which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990. In other countries, similar legal battles were fought, usually with similar outcomes. Only rarely did they not result in the defeat of the “establishment:” In 1990, a Japanese Ministry of Health report found that chiropractic is “not based on the knowledge of human anatomy but subjective and unscientific.”
These victories came at the price of “taming” and “medicalizing” chiropractic. In turn, this formed the basis of a conflict within the chiropractic profession – the dispute between “mixers” and “straights” – a conflict which continues to the present day.
The “straights” religiously adhere to D.D. Palmer’s notions of the “innate intelligence” and view subluxation as the sole cause and manipulation as the sole cure of all human disease. They do not mix any non-chiropractic techniques into their therapeutic repertoire, dismiss physical examination (beyond searching for subluxations) and think medical diagnosis is irrelevant for chiropractic. The “mixers” are somewhat more open to science and conventional medicine, use treatments other than spinal manipulation, and tend to see chiropractors as back pain specialists. Father and son Palmer warned that the “mixers” were “polluting and diluting the sacred teachings” of chiropractic. Many chiropractors agreed that the mixers were “bringing discredit to the chiropractic.”
The “straights” are now in the minority but nevertheless exert an important influence. They have, for instance, recently achieved election victories within the British General Chiropractic Council. Today, two different chiropractic professions exist side by sided “one that wishes to preserve the non-empirical, non-positivist, vitalist foundations (the straights) and the other that wishes to be reckoned as medical physicians and wishes to utilize the techniques and mechanistic viewpoint of orthodox medicine (the mixers).” The International Chiropractic Association represents the “straights” and the American Chiropractic Association the “mixers.”
(for references, see the original article)
The purpose of this paper was to compare the characteristics of the chiropractic technique systems that have utilised radiography for subluxation detection with the characteristics of religion, and to discover potential historical links that may have facilitated the development of those characteristics.
The authors found 23 technique systems requiring radiography for subluxation analysis. Evidence of religiosity from the early founders’ writings was compared with textbooks, published papers, and websites of subsequently developed systems. Six criteria denoting religious thinking were developed: supernatural concepts, claims of supremacy, rules and rituals, sacred artefacts, sacred stories, and special language. All of these were found to a greater or lesser degree in the publicly available documents of all the subluxation-based chiropractic x-ray systems.
The authors concluded that the founders and early pioneers of chiropractic did not benefit from the current understanding of science and research, and therefore substituted deductive and inductive reasoning to arrive at conclusions about health and disease in the human body. Some of this thinking and rationalisation demonstrably followed a religion-like pattern, including BJ Palmer’s use of radiography. Although access to scientific methods and research education became much advanced and more accessible during the past few decades, the publicly available documents of technique systems that used radiography for chiropractic subluxation detection examined in this paper employed a historically derived paradigm for radiography that displayed characteristics in common with religion.
As I was pondering these amazing statements, a friend alerted me to the promotional material by a chiropractic college in the US. The website of this institution refers to subluxation – have we not been told that this term now belongs to the realm of chiropractic history? – in many places, e. g. :
Dr. Brian Kelly talks about the subluxation debate, and introduces to a comprehensive resource on the subluxation. Visit LifeWestPress to order your own copy of the “Atlas of Common Subluxations of the Human Spine and Pelvis.”
… an introduction to the literature concerning the scientific examination of the subluxation and its physiological and anatomical basis. The physiology, neurology, and biomechanics of subluxation and adjustment are surveyed.
The focus of Knee Chest Upper Cervical Chiropractic Care is to address the Upper Cervical Subluxation. This includes detecting the Subluxation, designing a customized correction with the assistance of imaging, and patient management.
Atlas of Common Subluxations By William J Ruch, D.C. “One of the most significant chiropractic clinical text of the decade” -Dr. Deed Harrison D.C. The serious results of subluxations of the spine can now been seen in color. by studying the dramatic consequences of chronic
Gonstead B provides an emphasis on patients who present with subluxations of the cervical and thoracic areas of the spine. Some case management protocols are also discussed. This course includes instruction in static and motion visualization, inspection, and palpation; skin temperature…
The president of this college tells us that “….We believe chiropractic is a vital part of health care and that the chiropractic lifestyle is something that the public is placing in high demand right now…” (Dr. Brian Kelly President). Inspired by such big words, I study more of the promotional material furthermore which informs us that:
We must study and understand the reason why chiropractic holds an impactful and necessary place in the future of our entire planet’s health. We must truly understand and own the principles of safe and eective healthcare for all. Philosophy is not just “for fun”. Philosophy is the glue that holds all of the elements of our educational process together.
At this stage I begin to wonder whether they have more to offer than ‘philosophy’ – how about some evidence? I looked and looked hard, but my efforts were in vain. Evidence does not seem to be a focus of this college. Instead we are offered obsolete concepts like vitalism:
Vitalism is the understanding that there is more to the basic function of the human body than just a bunch of parts and mechanisms. There is something more to us than just many parts of a machine. Vitalism is the study of the underlying elements of the organization of intelligence in the human body (and in any living system) and how that intelligence runs the system. From a vitalistic viewpoint, the care provided by a chiropractor takes on a unique and critical role in supporting the human body’s natural inclination to heal itself and to remain healthy over the course of a lifetime.
Now I am acutely reminded of the well-documented fact that DD Palmer, the man who invented chiropractic, had toyed with the idea of founding a religion. Perhaps he has done exactly that and we have not yet noticed? More importantly perhaps, I get the feeling that all this talk (on this blog and elsewhere) that chiropractors are working ever so hard to leave their bizarre past behind and join the rest of us in the 21st century is little more that wishful thinking.
Dr. Oz, famous through his TV show promoting all types of quackery, recently testified before a US Senate subcommittee hearing on protecting consumers from false and deceptive advertising of weight loss products. This event turned out to be less than flattering for Dr Oz. One journalist commented that he “might as well be a cowardly lion — sent home with his tail between his legs after being accused at a congressional hearing of lying on his show about weight-loss claims.”
“I don’t get why you need to say this stuff, because you know it’s not true,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, who led the commerce subcommittee hearing. “The scientific community is almost monolithically against you in terms of the efficacy of the products you called ‘miracles,’ ” the Democratic senator from Missouri told Oz. “It’s a major problem when people are spending more and more money and they’re gaining more and more weight,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar.“Either you don’t talk about these things at all, or you’re going to have to be more specific because right now . . . this is not working.”
A source close to Dr Oz said he was perplexed: “We were invited down to Washington to testify at a hearing about scams and instead it became all about how much we hate your show.” Oz himself testified that he “heard the message…I do personally believe in the items that I talk about.”
“I intensively study them. I have given my family these products. . . . If you can lose a pound a week more than you would have lost by using them, it jump-starts you and gets you going. I think it makes sense.” “I’m surprised you’re defending this,” McCaskill replied. “It’s something that gives people false hope. I don’t see why you need to go there.”
Another journalist commented that the Senators repeatedly placed him on the defense over his weight loss products: “I know you know how much power you have. I know you know that. You are very powerful and [with] power comes a great deal of responsibility,” Senator Claire McCaskill , who led the Senate’s consumer protection hearing titled “Protecting Consumers from False and Deceptive Advertising of Weight-Loss Products…You are being made an example of today because of the power you have in this space…We didn’t call this hearing to beat up on you but we did call this hearing to talk about a real crisis in consumer protection. You can either be part of the police here or you can be part of the problem.”
Oz insisted he was no huckster but admitted the products promoted on his show don’t always have “the scientific muster” to present their benefits as “fact…I actually do personally believe in the items that I talk about in the show. I passionately studied them. I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact but nevertheless I would give my audience the advice I give my family all the time. And I have given my family these products,” he said.
Dr Oz also said that some alternative treatments, such as prayer, cannot be tested scientifically. “I don’t think this ought to be a referendum on the use of alternative medical therapies. Because if that’s the case, listen, I’ve been criticized for having folks coming on my show talking about the power of prayer,” he said. “I can’t prove that prayer helps people survive an illness.”
No, Dr Oz! I know you are mistaken! I have done the research – both on alternative slimming aids and on spiritual healing. The results quite clearly show that these methods are not more effective than a placebo.
There are many terms for this type of treatment: energy healing, Therapeutic Touch, Reiki, spiritual healing and para-normal healing are just some of the better-known ones. These interventions are based of the belief that some sort of ‘energy’ can be channelled by the healer into the body of the patient to assist its capacity for self-healing. Needless to say that their biological plausibility is suspiciously close to zero.
This new study was aimed at testing the effectiveness of energy healing on the well-being of patients and at assessing the influence on the results of participating in a randomized controlled trial. A total of 247 colorectal cancer patients were included in the trial. One half of them were randomized to either:
- healing (RH) or
- control (RC)
The other half of the patients was not randomized and had either:
- self-selected healing (SH) or
- self-selected control condition (SC)
All patients completed questionnaires assessing well-being Quality of Life (QoL), depressive symptoms, mood, and sleep quality), attitude toward complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), and faith/spirituality at baseline, 1 week, and 2 months post-intervention. Patients were also asked to indicate, at baseline, whether they considered QoL, depressive symptoms, mood, and sleep quality as important outcomes.
Compared with controls, no overall effect of healing were noted on QoL, depressive symptoms, mood, or sleep quality in the intervention groups (RH, SH). Effects of healing on mood were only found for patients who initially had a positive attitude toward CAM and considered the outcome in question as important.
The authors of this study arrived at the following conclusions: Whereas it is generally assumed that CAMs such as healing have beneficial effects on well-being, our results indicated no overall effectiveness of energy healing on QoL, depressive symptoms, mood, and sleep quality in colorectal cancer patients. Effectiveness of healing on well-being was, however, related to factors such as self-selection and a positive attitude toward the treatment.
Survey after survey shows that ‘energy healing’ is popular amongst cancer patients. But medicine is no popularity contest, and the existing clinical trials have mostly failed to show that these treatments work beyond a sometimes remarkably strong placebo-effect. Consequently, several systematic reviews have arrived at conclusions that were far from positive:
Since the publication of our previous systematic review in 2000, several rigorous new studies have emerged. Collectively they shift the weight of the evidence against the notion that distant healing is more than a placebo
This new and fairly rigorous trial clearly points in the same direction. Thus we a faced with the fact that these treatments are:
- utterly implausible
- not supported by good clinical evidence
What follows seems as simple as it is indisputable: energy healing is nonsense and does not merit further research.
It has often occurred to me that some people use alternative medicine not as medicine but as something entirely different. A new investigation sheds an interesting light on this question.
The aim of this study was to explore how and why Australian men with cancer use complementary therapies (CTs) and how their significant others (SOs) contribute to the regular uptake of CTs. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 26 male cancer patients and 24 SOs. Participants were purposefully sampled from a preceding Australian survey investigating the use of CTs in men with cancer.
Three core themes were identified: men used CTs as (a) problem-focused coping (e.g., diet modification), (b) emotion-focused coping (e.g., meditation), and (c) meaning-based coping (e.g., prayer). Practicing CTs helped men to cope with physical, emotional, and spiritual concerns, although some men spoke of difficulties with practicing meditation to regulate their emotions. SOs were supportive of men’s coping strategies but were only rarely involved in men’s emotion-focused coping.
The authors conclude that CTs have the potential to facilitate coping with cancer, independent of any measurable physiological benefit. Our findings suggest that when clinicians engage in conversations about CTs use, they should consider the type of coping strategy employed by their patient. Such information may enhance the efficacy of some interventions (e.g., meditation) and also provide for an opportunity to discuss patients’ expectations concerning CTs.
If these findings are generalizable – I always have problems when researchers draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of two dozen patients – then it would seem to follow that alternative medicine is being used as some sort of ‘Ersatz’ religion. Religious coping strategies are effective in Spiritual growth that results in positive or negative situations. It is the perception of an individual’s relationship with God that brings meaning, purpose and emotional comfort when dealing with circumstances. Prayer, meditation, worship are all examples of religious coping strategies. Positive coping strategies associate with better mental health and negative coping strategies relate to poorer mental and physical health.
Leading researchers have split religious coping into two categories: positive religious coping and negative religious coping. Individuals who use positive religious coping are likely to seek spiritual support and look for meaning in a traumatic situation. Negative religious coping (or Spiritual Struggles) expresses conflict, question, and doubt regarding issues of God and faith. The effects of religious coping are measured in many different circumstances, each with different outcomes. Some common experiences where people use religious coping are fear-inflicting events such as 9/11 or the holocaust, death and sickness, and near death experiences.
I do not want to labour my point (that alternative medicine might be an ‘Ersatz’ religion) beyond reason. Nonetheless, I would be very interested to hear what my readers feel about it.
Homeopathy is a deeply puzzling subject for many observers. Perhaps it gets a little easier to understand, if we consider the three main perspectives on homeopathy. For the purpose of this post, I take the liberty of exaggerating, almost caricaturizing, these perspectives in order to contrast them as clearly as possible.
THE SCEPTICS’ PERSPECTIVE
Sceptics take a brief look at the two main assumptions which underpin homeopathy (like cures like and potentiation/dilution/water memory) and henceforward are convinced that homeopathic remedies are pure placebos. Homeopathy flies in the face of science; if homeopathy is right, several laws of nature must be wrong, they love to point out. As this is most unlikely, they reject homeopathy outright, usually even without looking in any detail at what homeopaths consider to be evidence in support of their trade. If sceptics are forced to consider a positive study of homeopathy, they know before they have seen it that its results are wrong – due to an error caused by chance, faulty study design or fabrication. The sceptics’ conclusion on homeopathy: it is a placebo-therapy, no doubt about it; and further investment into research is a waste of scarce resources which must be stopped.
THE BELIEVERS’ PERSPECTIVE
The believers in homeopathy know from experience that homeopathy works. They therefore feel that they have no choice but to reject almost every word the sceptics might tell them. They cling on to the gospel of Hahnemann and elaborate on the modern but vague theories that might support the theoretical assumptions of homeopathy. They point to positive clinical trials and outcome studies, to 200 years of experience, and to the endorsement of homeopathy by VIPs. When confronted with the weaknesses of their arguments, they find even weaker ones, such as ‘much of conventional medicine is also not based on good evidence, and the mechanism of action of many mainstream drugs is also not fully understood’. Alternatively, they employ the phoniest argument of them all: ‘even if it works via a placebo effect, it still helps patients and therefore is a useful therapy’. When even this fails, they tend to resort to ad hominem attacks against their opponents. The believers’ conclusion on homeopathy: it is unquestionably a valuable type of therapy regardless of what anyone else might say; research is merely needed to confirm their belief.
THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE ADVOCATES OF EVIDENCE-BASED MEDICINE (EBM)
The perspective of EBM-advocates is pragmatic; they simply say: “show me the evidence!” If the majority of the most reliable clinical trials of homeopathic remedies (or anything else) suggests an effect beyond placebo, they conclude that they are effective. If that is not the case, they doubt the effectiveness. If the evidence is highly contradictory or incomplete, they are likely to advocate more rigorous research. Advocates of EBM are usually not all that concerned by the lack of plausibility of the interventions they evaluate. If it works, it works, they think – and if a plausible mechanism is currently not available, it might be found in due course. The advocates of EBM have no preconceived ideas about homeopathy. Their conclusion on homeopathy goes exactly where the available best evidence leads them.
The arguments and counter-arguments originating from the various perspectives would surely continue for another 200 years – unless, of course, two of the three perspectives merge and arrive at the same or very similar conclusions. And this is precisely what has now happened. As I have pointed out in a recent post, the most thorough and independent evaluation of homeopathy according to rigorous EBM-standards has concluded that “the evidence from research in humans does not show that homeopathy is effective for treating the range of health conditions considered.”
In other words, two of the three principal perspectives have now drawn conclusions which are virtually identical: there is a consensus between the EBM-advocates and the sceptics. This isolates the believers and renders their position no longer tenable. If we furthermore consider that the believers are heavily burdened with obvious conflicts of interest, while the other two groups are by definition much more independent and objective, it appears more and more as though homeopathy is fast degenerating into a cult characterised by the unquestioning commitment and unconditional submission of its members who are too heavily brain-washed to realize that their fervour has isolated them from the rational sections of society. And a cult is hardly what we need in heath care, I should think.
It seems to me therefore that these intriguing developments might finally end the error that homeopathy represented for nearly 200 years.
Progress at last?
In Europe, we have chiropractors, homeopaths, naturopaths and anthroposophical physicians who recommend to their patients not to vaccinate their children. In the US, they have all this plus some of the clergy to jeopardize herd immunity.
An outbreak of measles infections has been reported in Tarrant County, Texas, US where at least 21 people have been affected this month at the Eagle Mountain International Church. The ministers of this church have been critical of vaccination and advised to use alternative treatments. Several more cases of infections with fever and rash have been noted, but so far remain unconfirmed.
Before the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, between 3 million and 4 million people in the U.S. were infected each year, 48,000 of them needed hospitalisation and 400 to 500 died. Another 1,000 developed chronic disabilities. In the US measles were considered eradicated in 2000, but outbreaks continue because of imported infections brought back by travellers from areas where measles remains common.
The Texas outbreak was caused by a non-vaccinated visitor who had been infected in Indonesia and then returned to expose unvaccinated church members, staff and children in a day-care centre. In the wider community, more than 98 per cent of kids are immunized and less than 1 per cent are exempt. But the congregation of unvaccinated people allowed the disease to catch hold. Church leaders, including Kenneth Copeland and his daughter, Terri Pearsons, senior pastor at Eagle Mountain, have advocated faith-healing and questioned vaccines in the past.
And what can faith-healing achieve? Where is the evidence that it prevents or cures infections or any other diseases? You probably guessed: there is none.
A cult can be defined not just in a religious context, but also as a” usually nonscientific method or regimen claimed by its originator to have exclusive or exceptional power in curing a particular disease.” After ~20 years of researching this area, I have come to suspect that much of alternative medicine resembles a cult – a bold statement, so I better explain.
One characteristic of a cult is the unquestioning commitment of its members to the bizarre ideas of their iconic leader. This, I think, chimes with several forms alternative medicine. Homeopaths, for instance, very rarely question the implausible doctrines of Hahnemann who, to them, is some sort of a semi-god. Similarly, few chiropractors doubt even the most ridiculous assumptions of their founding father, D D Palmer who, despite of having been a somewhat pathetic figure, is uncritically worshipped. By definition, a cult-leader is idealised and thus not accountable to anyone; he (yes, it is almost invariably a male person) cannot be proven wrong by logic arguments nor by scientific facts. He is quite simply immune to any form of scrutiny. Those who dare to disagree with his dogma are expelled, punished, defamed or all of the above.
Cults tend to brain-wash their members into unconditional submission and belief. Likewise, fanatics of alternative medicine tend to be brain-washed, i.e. systematically misinformed to the extend that reality becomes invisible. They unquestioningly believe in what they have been told, in what they have read in their cult-texts, and in what they have learnt from their cult-peers. The effects of this phenomenon can be dramatic: the powers of discrimination of the cult-member are reduced, critical questions are discouraged, and no amount of evidence can dissuade the cult-member from abandoning even the most indefensible concepts. Internal criticism is thus by definition non-existent.
Like religious cults, many forms of alternative medicine promote an elitist concept. Cult-members become convinced of their superiority, based not on rational considerations but on irrational beliefs. This phenomenon has a range of consequences. It leads to the isolation of the cult-member from the rest of the world. By definition, critics of the cult do not belong to the elite; they are viewed as not being able to comprehend the subtleties of the issues at hand and are thus ignored or not taken seriously. For cult-members, external criticism is thus non-existent or invalid.
Cult-members tend to be on a mission, and so are many enthusiasts of alternative medicine. They use any conceivable means to recruit new converts. For instance, they try to convince family, friends and acquaintances of their belief in their particular alternative therapy at every conceivable occasion. They also try to operate on a political level to popularize their cult. They cherry pick data, often argue emotionally rather than rationally, and ignore all arguments which contradict their belief system.
Cult-members, in their isolation from society, tend to be assume that there is little worthy of their consideration outside the cult. Similarly, enthusiasts of alternative medicine tend to think that their treatment is the only true method of healing. Therapies, concepts and facts which are not cult-approved are systematically defamed. An example is the notion of BIG PHARMA which is employed regularly in alternative medicine. No reasonable person assumes that the pharmaceutical industry smells of roses. However, the exaggerated and systematic denunciation of this industry and its achievements is a characteristic of virtually all branches of alternative medicine. Such behaviour usually tells us more about the accuser than the accused.
There are many other parallels between a cult and alternative medicine, I am sure. In my view, the most striking one must be the fact that any spark of cognitive dissonance in the cult-victim is being extinguished by highly effective and incessant flow of misinformation which often amounts to a form of brain-washing.