MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

research

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The randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial is usually the methodology to test the efficacy of a therapy that carries the least risk of bias. This fact is an obvious annoyance to some alt med enthusiasts, because such trials far too often fail to produce the results they were hoping for.

But there is no need to despair. Here I provide a few simple tips on how to mislead the public with seemingly rigorous trials.

1 FRAUD

The most brutal method for misleading people is simply to cheat. The Germans have a saying, ‘Papier ist geduldig’ (paper is patient), implying that anyone can put anything on paper. Fortunately we currently have plenty of alt med journals which publish any rubbish anyone might dream up. The process of ‘peer-review’ is one of several mechanisms supposed to minimise the risk of scientific fraud. Yet alt med journals are more clever than that! They tend to have a peer-review that rarely involves independent and critical scientists, more often than not you can even ask that you best friend is invited to do the peer-review, and the alt med journal will follow your wish. Consequently the door is wide open to cheating. Once your fraudulent paper has been published, it is almost impossible to tell that something is fundamentally wrong.

But cheating is not confined to original research. You can also apply the method to other types of research, of course. For instance, the authors of the infamous ‘Swiss report’ on homeopathy generated a false positive picture using published systematic reviews of mine by simply changing their conclusions from negative to positive. Simple!

2 PRETTIFICATION

Obviously, outright cheating is not always as simple as that. Even in alt med, you cannot easily claim to have conducted a clinical trial without a complex infrastructure which invariably involves other people. And they are likely to want to have some control over what is happening. This means that complete fabrication of an entire data set may not always be possible. What might still be feasible, however, is the ‘prettification’ of the results. By just ‘re-adjusting’ a few data points that failed to live up to your expectations, you might be able to turn a negative into a positive trial. Proper governance is aimed at preventing his type of ‘mini-fraud’ but fortunately you work in alt med where such mechanisms are rarely adequately implemented.

3 OMISSION

Another very handy method is the omission of aspects of your trial which regrettably turned out to be in disagreement with the desired overall result. In most studies, one has a myriad of endpoints. Once the statistics of your trial have been calculated, it is likely that some of them yield the wanted positive results, while others do not. By simply omitting any mention of the embarrassingly negative results, you can easily turn a largely negative study into a seemingly positive one. Normally, researchers have to rely on a pre-specified protocol which defines a primary outcome measure. Thankfully, in the absence of proper governance, it usually is possible to publish a report which obscures such detail and thus mislead the public (I even think there has been an example of such an omission on this very blog).

4 STATISTICS

Yes – lies, dam lies, and statistics! A gifted statistician can easily find ways to ‘torture the data until they confess’. One only has to run statistical test after statistical test, and BINGO one will eventually yield something that can be marketed as the longed-for positive result. Normally, researchers must have a protocol that pre-specifies all the methodologies used in a trial, including the statistical analyses. But, in alt med, we certainly do not want things to function normally, do we?

5 TRIAL DESIGNS THAT CANNOT GENERATE A NEGATIVE RESULT

All the above tricks are a bit fraudulent, of course. Unfortunately, fraud is not well-seen by everyone. Therefore, a more legitimate means of misleading the public would be highly desirable for those aspiring alt med researchers who do not want to tarnish their record to their disadvantage. No worries guys, help is on the way!

The fool-proof trial design is obviously the often-mentioned ‘A+B versus B’ design. In such a study, patients are randomized to receive an alt med treatment (A) together with usual care (B) or usual care (B) alone. This looks rigorous, can be sold as a ‘pragmatic’ trial addressing a real-fife problem, and has the enormous advantage of never failing to produce a positive result: A+B is always more than B alone, even if A is a pure placebo. Such trials are akin to going into a hamburger joint for measuring the calories of a Big Mac without chips and comparing them to the calories of a Big Mac with chips. We know the result before the research has started; in alt med, that’s how it should be!

I have been banging on about the ‘A+B versus B’ design often enough, but recently I came across a new study design used in alt med which is just as elegantly misleading. The trial in question has a promising title: Quality-of-life outcomes in patients with gynecologic cancer referred to integrative oncology treatment during chemotherapy. Here is the unabbreviated abstract:

OBJECTIVE:

Integrative oncology incorporates complementary medicine (CM) therapies in patients with cancer. We explored the impact of an integrative oncology therapeutic regimen on quality-of-life (QOL) outcomes in women with gynecological cancer undergoing chemotherapy.

PATIENTS AND METHODS:

A prospective preference study examined patients referred by oncology health care practitioners (HCPs) to an integrative physician (IP) consultation and CM treatments. QOL and chemotherapy-related toxicities were evaluated using the Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale (ESAS) and Measure Yourself Concerns and Wellbeing (MYCAW) questionnaire, at baseline and at a 6-12-week follow-up assessment. Adherence to the integrative care (AIC) program was defined as ≥4 CM treatments, with ≤30 days between each session.

RESULTS:

Of 128 patients referred by their HCP, 102 underwent IP consultation and subsequent CM treatments. The main concerns expressed by patients were fatigue (79.8 %), gastrointestinal symptoms (64.6 %), pain and neuropathy (54.5 %), and emotional distress (45.5 %). Patients in both AIC (n = 68) and non-AIC (n = 28) groups shared similar demographic, treatment, and cancer-related characteristics. ESAS fatigue scores improved by a mean of 1.97 points in the AIC group on a scale of 0-10 and worsened by a mean of 0.27 points in the non-AIC group (p = 0.033). In the AIC group, MYCAW scores improved significantly (p < 0.0001) for each of the leading concerns as well as for well-being, a finding which was not apparent in the non-AIC group.

CONCLUSIONS:

An IP-guided CM treatment regimen provided to patients with gynecological cancer during chemotherapy may reduce cancer-related fatigue and improve other QOL outcomes.

A ‘prospective preference study’ – this is the design the world of alt med has been yearning for! Its principle is beautiful in its simplicity. One merely administers a treatment or treatment package to a group of patients; inevitably some patients take it, while others don’t. The reasons for not taking it could range from lack of perceived effectiveness to experience of side-effects. But never mind, the fact that some do not want your treatment provides you with two groups of patients: those who comply and those who do not comply. With a bit of skill, you can now make the non-compliers appear like a proper control group. Now you only need to compare the outcomes and BOB IS YOUR UNCLE!

Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant!

I cannot think of a more deceptive trial-design than this one; it will make any treatment look good, even one that is a mere placebo. Alright, it is not randomized, and it does not even have a proper control group. But it sure looks rigorous and meaningful, this ‘prospective preference study’!

If the Flat Earth Society (FES) really exists at all, I must confess I know nothing about it. Here I use the term ‘FES’ merely as an analogy; you might replace FES with SoH or BHA or BAA or BCA or with most of the other acronyms used in my field of inquiry.

What I do know about is alternative medicine, particularly publications in this area, and the authors of such papers. As it happens, the members of my imaginary FES have a lot in common with the authors of articles on alternative medicine. Their publication policy, for instance, is remarkably simple yet astonishingly effective. Its aim is straight forward: mislead the public. As far as I can see, it is being pursued by just two main strategies.

1 SWAMP THE MARKET WITH TRASH

This is a simple and most successful strategy. It consists of publishing an ever-growing mountain of utter nonsense. Anyone who is  interested in alternative medicine and conducts a search would thus find tons of articles listed in Medline or other databases. This will instantly generate the impression that Flat Earth research is highly active. Those who can bear the pain might even try to read a few of these papers; they will soon give up in despair. Too many are hardly understandable; they are often badly written, lack essential methodological detail, and invariably arrive at positive conclusions.

The strategy can only work, if there are journals who publish such rubbish. I am glad to say, there is no shortage of them! To attain a veneer of credibility, the journals need to be peer-reviewed, of course. This is no real problem, as long as the peer-reviewers are carefully chosen to be ‘cooperative’. The trick is to make sure to ask the authors submitting articles to name two or three uncritical friends who might, one day, be happy to act as peer-reviewers for their own papers. This works very smoothly indeed: one pseudo-scientist is sure to help another in their desire to publish some pseudo-science in a ‘peer-reviewed’ journal.

To oil the system well, we need money, of course. Again, no problem: most of these journals ask for a hefty publication fee.

The result is as obvious as it is satisfying. The journal earns well, the pseudo-researchers can publish their pseudo-research at will, and the peer-reviewers know precisely where to go for a favour when they need one. Crucially, the first hurdle to misleading the public is taken with bravura.

2. REFUTE ANY EVIDENCE THAT IS UNFAVOURABLE

There are, of course, journals which refuse to play along. Annoyingly, they adhere to such old-fashioned things like standards and ethics; they have a peer-review system that is critical and independent; and they don’t rely on pseudo-scientists for their income. Every now and then, such a journal publishes an article on alternative medicine. It goes without saying that, in all likelihood, such an article is of high quality and therefore would not be in favour of Flat Earth assumptions.

This is a serious threat to the aim of the FES. What can be done?

No panic, the solution is simple!

An article is urgently needed to criticise the paper with the unfavourable evidence – never mind that it is of much better quality than the average paper in the Flat Earth-journals. If one looks hard enough, one can find a flaw in almost every article. And if there is none, the FES can always invent one. And if the proper science journal refuses to publish the pseudo-criticism as a comment, there are always enough pseudo-journals that are only too keen to oblige.

The important thing is to get something that vaguely looks like a rebuttal in print (the public will not realise that it is phony!).

Once this aim is achieved, the world is back in order again. As soon as someone dares to cite the high quality, negative evidence, the FES members can all shout with one voice: BUT THIS PAPER HAS BEEN HEAVILY CRITICISED; IT IS NOT RELIABLE! WHOEVER CITED THE PAPER IS ILL-INFORMED AND THEREFORE NOT CREDIBLE.

3. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

The overall effect is clear. The public, journalists, politicians etc. get the impression that the earth is indeed flat – or, at the very minimum, they are convinced that there is a real scientific debate about the question.

Homeopathy seems to attract some kind of miracle worker. Elsewhere I have, for instance, reported the curious case of Prof Claudia Witt who published more than anyone on homeopathy in recent years without hardly ever arriving at a negative conclusion. Recently, I came across a researcher with an even better track record: Prof Michael Frass.

Wikipedia describes his achievements as follows: “Michael Frass studied medicine from 1972 to 1978 at the Medical University of Vienna followed by visits abroad at the Pasteur Institute, Paris and at the Porter Memorial Hospital (USA). Since March 2004 he directs the Outpatients Unit of Homeopathy for Malign Diseases at the Department Clinic for Internal of Medicine I at the Medical University of Vienna. Since 2005 Frass also works as a coordinator of the lecture series Homeopathy at the Medical University of Vienna. Beginning with the winter semester 2001/02 he is the coordinator of a lecture series Basics and practise of complementary medical methods at the Medical University of Vienna. From 2002 to 2005 he led the Ludwig Boltzmanm Institute of Homeopathy. Since 2005 Frass is president of the Institute for Homeopathic Research. Actually he works at the Division of Oncology at the Department of Medicine I in Vienna. He is First Chairman of the Scientific Society for Homeopathy (WissHom), founded in 2010, president of the Umbrella organization of Austrian Doctors for Holistic Medicine.”

He directs the WHAT? The Outpatients Unit of Homeopathy for Malign Diseases at the Department Clinic for Internal of Medicine I at the Medical University of Vienna? This is my former medical school, and I had no idea that such a unit even existed – but, of course, I left in 1993 for Exeter (a few months ago, I followed an invitation to give a lecture on homeopathy at the Medical University of Vienna ; sadly neither Prof Frass nor anyone of his team attended).

And what about the Scientific Society for Homeopathy? I am sure that the name of this organisation will make some people wonder. From the society’s website, we learn that “the intention of WissHom is to contribute to the progress of medicine and to the collective good. To this end, WissHom intents to further develop homeopathy both practically and theoretically. It will be WissHom’s task to breathe life into this committed objective.”

Breathing life into homeopathy seems exactly what Prof Frass does. He seems to have found his way to homeopathy relatively late in his career (the 1st Medline-listed article was published only in 2003) but he has nevertheless published many studies on this subject (I use the term ‘study’ here to describe both clinical, pre-clinical and basic research papers); in total, I found 12 such articles on Medline. They cover extremely diverse areas and a wide range of methodologies. Yet they all have one remarkable feature in common: they arrive at positive conclusions.

You find this hard to believe? Join the club!

But it is undeniably true, here are the conclusions (or the bit that comes close to a conclusion) from the Medline-listed abstracts (only the headings in capital letters are mine, and they simply depict the nature of the paper)

AN RCT WITH CANCER PATIENTS (2015)

Results suggest that the global health status and subjective wellbeing of cancer patients improve significantly when adjunct classical homeopathic treatment is administered in addition to conventional therapy.

TWO CASE REPORTS OF HOMEOPATHICALLY TREATED INTOXICATIONS (2014)

Based on the 2 cases, including 1 extreme situation, we suggest that adjunctive homeopathic treatment has a role in the treatment of acute Amanita phalloides-induced toxicity following mushroom poisoning. Additional studies may clarify a more precise dosing regimen, standardization, and better acceptance of homeopathic medicine in the intensive care setting.

RETORSPECTIVE ANALYSIS OF CANER SURVIVAL UNDER HOMEOPATHIC TREATMENT (2014)

Extended survival time in this sample of cancer patients with fatal prognosis but additive homeopathic treatment is interesting. However, findings are based on a small sample, and with only limited data available about patient and treatment characteristics. The relationship between homeopathic treatment and survival time requires prospective investigation in larger samples possibly using matched-pair control analysis or randomized trials.

OBSERVATIONAL STUDY OF HOMEOPATHIC TREATMENT FOR ALLERGIES (2012)

The symptoms of patients undergoing homeopathic treatment were shown to improve substantially and conventional medication dosage could be substantially reduced. While the real-life effect assessed indicates that there is a potential for enhancing therapeutic measures and reducing healthcare cost, it does not allow to draw conclusions as to the efficacy of homeopathic treatment per se.

IN-VITRO STUDY OF THE EFFECTS OF HOMEOPATHICS ON HELIOBACTER PYLORI (2010)

The data suggest that both drugs prepared in ethanolic solution are potent inhibitors of H. pylori induced gene expression.

SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF HOMEOPATHY FOR RESPIRATORY ALLERGIES (2010)

Most of these clinical studies have been deemed to be high quality trials, according to the three most commonly referenced meta-analyses of homeopathic research. Basic in vitro experimental studies also provide evidence that the effects of homeopathy differ from placebo.

CASE SERIES OF PATIENTS TREATED WITH HOMEOPATHIC PETROLEUM (2008)

This study is based on 25 well documented reports of cases which responded well to treatment with Petroleum.

ANIMAL EXPERIMENT WITH HOMEOPATHY ( 2008)

Animals treated with the standard test solution thyroxine 10(-30) metamorphosed more slowly than the control animals, ie the effect of the homeopathically prepared thyroxine was opposed to the usual physiological effect of molecular thyroxine.

OVERVIEW OF HOMEOPATHIC TREATMENT IN INTENSIVE CARE (2005)

Our report suggests that homeopathy may be applicable even for critically ill patients.

RCT OF HOMEOPATHY FOR SEVERE SEPSIS (2005)

Our data suggest that homeopathic treatment may be a useful additional therapeutic measure with a long-term benefit for severely septic patients admitted to the intensive care unit. A constraint to wider application of this method is the limited number of trained homeopaths.

RCT OF HOMEOPATHY FOR COPD (2005)

These data suggest that potentized (diluted and vigorously shaken) potassium dichromate may help to decrease the amount of stringy tracheal secretions in COPD patients.

ANIMAL STUDY OF A HOMEOPATHIC REMEDY (2003)

These animals reacted to the homeopathically prepared thyroxine with a slowing down of metamorphosis, even when they had not been prestimulated with a molecular dose of the hormone. This effect was observed in all 3 laboratories and is consistent with the results of previous studies.

Surprised?

So am I!

How can homeopathy produce nothing but positive results in the hands of this researcher? How can it work in so many entirely different conditions? How is it possible that homeopathic remedies are better than placebo regardless of the methodology used? Why does homeopathy, in the hands of Prof Frass, not even once produce a result that disappoints the aspirations of homeopaths and its advocates? Why are these sensational results almost invariably published in very minor journals? Crucially, why has not one of the findings (as far as I can see) ever been independently reproduced?

I do not know the answers to these questions.

If anyone does, I would like to hear them.

I just came across a website that promised to”cover 5 common misconceptions about alternative medicine that many people have”. As much of this blog is about this very issue, I was fascinated. Here are Dr Cohen’s 5 points in full:

5 Misconceptions about Alternative Medicine Today

1. Alternative Medicine Is Only an Alternative

In fact, many alternative practitioners are also medical doctors, chiropractors, or other trained medical professionals. Others work closely with MDs to coordinate care. Patients should always let all of their health care providers know about treatments that they receive from all the others.

2. Holistic Medicine Isn’t Mainstream

In fact, scientists and doctors do perform studies on all sorts of alternative therapies to determine their effectiveness. These therapies, like acupuncture and an improved diet, pass the test of science and then get integrated into standard medical practices.

3. Natural Doctors Don’t Use Conventional Medicine

No credible natural doctor will ever tell a patient to replace prescribed medication without consulting with his or her original doctor. In many cases, the MD and natural practitioner are the same person. If not, they will coordinate treatment to benefit the health of the patient.

4. Alternative Medicine Doesn’t Work

Actual licensed health providers won’t just suggest natural therapies on a whim. They will consider scientific studies and their own experience to suggest therapies that do work. Countless studies have, for example, confirmed that acupuncture is an effective treatment for many medical conditions. Also, the right dietary changes are known to help improve health and even minimize or cure some diseases. Numerous other alternative therapies have been proven effective using scientific studies.

5. Big Medical Institutions are Against Alternative Medicine

According to a recent survey, about half of big insurers pay for tested alternative therapies like acupuncture. Also, hospitals and doctors do recognize that lifestyle changes, some herbal remedies, and other kinds of alternative medicine may reduce side effects, allow patients to reduce prescription medicine, and even lower medical bills.

This is not to say that every insurer, doctor, or hospital will support a particular treatment. However, patients are beginning to take more control of their health care. If their own providers won’t suggest natural remedies, it might be a good idea to find one who does.

The Best Medicine Combines Conventional and Alternative Medicine

Everyone needs to find the right health care providers to enjoy the safest and most natural care possible. Good natural health providers will have a solid education in their field. Nobody should just abandon their medical treatment to pursue alternative cures. However, seeking alternative therapies may help many people reduce their reliance on harsh medications by following the advice of alternative providers and coordinating their care with all of their health care providers.

END OF COHEN’S TEXT

COMMENT BY MYSELF

Who the Dickens is Dr Cohen and what is his background? I asked myself after reading this. From his website, it seems that he is a chiropractor from North Carolina – not just any old chiro, but one of the best!!! – who also uses several other dubious therapies. He sums up his ‘philosophy’ as follows:

There is an energy or life force that created us (all 70 trillion cells that we are made of) from two cells (sperm and egg cells). This energy or innate intelligence continues to support you throughout life and allows you to grow, develop, heal, and express your every potential. This life force coordinates all cells, tissues, muscles and organs by sending specific, moment by moment communication via the nervous system. If the nervous system is over-stressed or interfered with in any way, then your life force messages will not be properly expressed.

Here he is on the cover of some magazine and here is also his ‘PAIN CLINIC’

naturopathic-doctor-greenville-nc

Fascinating stuff, I am sure you agree.

As I do not want to risk a libel case, I will abstain from commenting on Dr Cohen and his methods or beliefs. Instead I will try to clear up a few misconceptions that are pertinent to him and the many other practitioners who are promoting pure BS via the Internet.

  • Not everyone who uses the title ‘Dr’ is a doctor in the sense of having studied medicine.
  • Chiropractors are not ‘trained medical professionals’.
  • The concepts of ‘vitalism’, ‘life force’ etc. have been abandoned in real heath care a long time ago, and medicine has improved hugely because of this.
  • Hardly any alternative therapy has ‘passed the test of science’.
  • Therefore, it is very doubtful whether alternative practitioners actually will ‘consider scientific studies’.
  • True, some trials did suggest that acupuncture is an effective treatment for many medical conditions; but their methodological quality is often far too low to draw firm conclusions and many other, often better studies have shown the contrary.
  • Numerous other alternative therapies have been proven ineffective using scientific studies.
  • Therefore it might be a good idea to find a health care provider who does not offer unproven treatments simply to make a fast buck.
  • Seeking alternative therapies may harm many people.

Dear Professor Robinson,

please forgive me for writing to you in a matter that, you might think, is really none of my business. I have been following the news and discussions about the BLACKMORE CHAIR at your university. Having been a professor of complementary medicine at Exeter for ~20 years and having published more papers on this subject than anyone else on the planet, I am naturally interested and would like to express some concerns, if you allow me to.

With my background, I would probably be the last person to argue that a research chair in alternative medicine is not a good and much-needed thing. However, accepting an endowment from a commercially interested source is, as you are well aware, a highly problematic matter.

I am confident that you intend to keep the sponsor at arm’s length and plan to appoint a true scientist to this post who will not engage in the promotional activities which the alternative medicine scene might be expecting. And I am equally sure that the money will be put to good use resulting in good and fully independent science.

But, even if all of this is the case, there are important problems to consider. By accepting Blackmore’s money, you have, perhaps inadvertently, given credit to a commercially driven business empire. As you probably know, Blackmores have a reputation of being ‘a bit on the cavalier side’ when it comes to rules and regulations. This is evidenced, for instance, by the number of complaints that have been upheld against them by the Australian authorities.

For these reasons, the creation of the new chair is not just a step towards generating research, it could (and almost inevitably will) be seen as a boost for quackery. It is foremost this aspect which might endanger the reputation of your university, I am afraid.

My own experience over the last two decades has taught me to be cautious and sceptical regarding the motives of many involved in the multi-billion alternative medicine business. I have recently published my memoir entitled ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND. SEARCHING FOR TRUTH AND FINDING TROUBLE’; it might be a helpful read for you and the new professor.

I hope you take my remarks as they were meant: constructive advice from someone who had to learn it all the hard way. If I can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to ask me.

Sincerely

Edzard Ernst

A recent comment to a post of mine (by a well-known and experienced German alt med researcher) made the following bold statement aimed directly at me and at my apparent lack of understanding research methodology:

C´mon , as researcher you should know the difference between efficacy and effectiveness. This is pharmacological basic knowledge. Specific (efficacy) + nonspecific effects = effectiveness. And, in fact, everything can be effective – because of non-specific or placebo-like effects. That does not mean that efficacy is existent.

The point he wanted to make is that outcome studies – studies without a control group where the researcher simply observe the outcome of a particular treatment in a ‘real life’ situation – suffice to demonstrate the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions. This belief is very wide-spread in alternative medicine and tends to mislead all concerned. It is therefore worth re-visiting this issue here in an attempt to create some clarity.

When a patient’s condition improves after receiving a therapy, it is very tempting to feel that this improvement reflects the effectiveness of the intervention (as the researcher mentioned above obviously does). Tempting but wrong: there are many other factors involved as well, for instance:

  • the placebo effect (mainly based on conditioning and expectation),
  • the therapeutic relationship with the clinician (empathy, compassion etc.),
  • the regression towards the mean (outliers tend to return to the mean value),
  • the natural history of the patient’s condition (most conditions get better even without treatment),
  • social desirability (patients tend to say they are better to please their friendly clinician),
  • concomitant treatments (patients often use treatments other than the prescribed one without telling their clinician).

So, how does this fit into the statement above ‘Specific (efficacy) + nonspecific effects = effectiveness’? Even if this formula were correct, it would not mean that outcome studies of the nature described demonstrate the effectiveness of a therapy. It all depends, of course, on what we call ‘non-specific’ effects. We all agree that placebo-effects belong to this category. Probably, most experts also would include the therapeutic relationship and the regression towards the mean under this umbrella. But the last three points from my list are clearly not non-specific effects of the therapy; they are therapy-independent determinants of the clinical outcome.

The most important factor here is usually the natural history of the disease. Some people find it hard to imagine what this term actually means. Here is a little joke which, I hope, will make its meaning clear and memorable.

CONVERATION BETWEEN TWO HOSPITAL DOCTORS:

Doc A: The patient from room 12 is much better today.

Doc B: Yes, we stared his treatment just in time; a day later and he would have been cured without it!

I am sure that most of my readers now understand (and never forget) that clinical improvement cannot be equated with the effectiveness of the treatment administered (they might thus be immune to the misleading messages they are constantly exposed to). Yet, I am not at all sure that all ‘alternativists’ have got it.

A recent article in the BMJ about my new book seems to have upset fellow researchers of alternative medicine. I am told that the offending passage is the following:

“Too much research on complementary therapies is done by people who have already made up their minds,” the first UK professor of complementary medicine has said. Edzard Ernst, who left his chair at Exeter University early after clashing with the Prince of Wales, told journalists at the Science Media Centre in London that, although more research into alternative medicines was now taking place, “none of the centres is anywhere near critical enough.”

Following this publication, I received indignant inquiries from colleagues asking whether I meant to say that their work lacks critical thinking. As this is a valid question, I will try to answer it the best I presently can.

Any critical evaluation of alternative medicine has to yield its fair share of negative conclusions about the value of alternative medicine. If it fails to do that, one would need to assume that most or all alternative therapies generate more good than harm – and very few experts (who are not proponents of alternative medicine) would assume that this can possibly be the case.

Put differently, this means that a researcher or a research group that does not generate its fair share of negative conclusions is suspect of lacking a critical attitude. In a previous post, I have addressed this issue in more detail by creating an ‘index’: THE TRUSTWORTHINESS INDEX. I have also provided a concrete example of a researcher who seems to be associated with a remarkably high index (the higher the index, the more suspicion of critical attitude).

Instead of unnecessarily upsetting my fellow researchers of alternative medicine any further, I will just issue this challenge: if any research group can demonstrate to have an index below 0.5 (which would mean the team has published twice as many negative conclusions as positive ones), I will gladly and publicly retract my suspicion that this group is “anywhere near critical enough”.

Homeopathy has many critics who claim that there is no good evidence for this type of therapy. Homeopaths invariably find this most unfair and point to a plethora of studies that show an effect. They are, of course, correct! There are plenty of trials that suggest that homeopathic remedies do work. The question, however, is HOW RELIABLE ARE THESE STUDIES?

Here is a brand new one which might stand for dozens of others.

In this study, homeopaths treated 50 multimorbid patients with homeopathic remedies identifies by a method called ‘polarity analysis’ (PA) and prospectively followed them over one year (PA enables homeopaths to calculate a relative healing probability, based on Boenninghausen’s grading of polar symptoms).

The 43 patients (86%) who completed the observation period experienced an average improvement of 91% in their initial symptoms. Six patients dropped out, and one did not achieve an improvement of 80%, and was therefore also counted as a treatment failure. The cost of homeopathic treatment was 41% of projected equivalent conventional treatment.

Good news then for enthusiasts of homeopathy? 91% improvement!

Yet, I am afraid that critics might not be bowled over. They might smell a whiff of selection bias, lament the lack of a control group or regret the absence of objective outcome measures. But I was prepared to go as far as stating that such results might be quite interesting… until I read the authors’ conclusions that is:

Polarity Analysis is an effective method for treating multimorbidity. The multitude of symptoms does not prevent the method from achieving good results. Homeopathy may be capable of taking over a considerable proportion of the treatment of multimorbid patients, at lower costs than conventional medicine.

Virtually nothing in these conclusions is based on the data provided. They are pure extrapolation and wild assumptions. Two questions seem to emerge from this:

  1. How on earth can we take this and so many other articles on homeopathy seriously?
  2. When does this sort of article cross the line between wishful thinking and scientific misconduct?

During the next few weeks, I will post several short excerpts from my new book ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND‘. Its subtitle already discloses much of what it is all about: ‘A MEMOIRE OF SEARCHING THE TRUTH AND FINDING TROUBLE’.

Some of my critics are likely to claim that I engage in this form of ‘promotion’ because I want to maximise my income by enticing my readers to buy the book. This is partly true, of course: after having worked very hard on this book for about 5 years, I want it to be read (but, at the same time, my critics would be mistaken: I do not expect to get rich on my new book – I am not that naïve; this ‘memoire’ will never be found in any best-seller list, I am sure). So, I suggest (if you do not want me to profit in any way) that you read my memoire after you got it from your library (which obviously would not affect my cash-flow all that much).

So here it is: with much trepidation and even more excitement I present to you the very first, short excerpt (as I said, there will be more).

Prelude

There are some people, a fortunate few, who seem to know from an early age where they want to go in life, and have no trouble getting there.

I was not one of them. I was born in Germany in the years immediately following the end of World War II and, like many German children of that era, I was acutely aware of the awkwardness and unease that my elders displayed when it came to discussions that touched on the country’s recent history. Even as a young boy, I was conscious that there was a large and restive skeleton in the nation’s closet, and that it belonged to all of us – even to those of us who had not been alive during the Nazi era were somehow nevertheless its legatees, inextricably bound to it simply by the awareness of its existence.

With time, the growing realization that so many of our peers – teachers, uncles, aunts; perhaps even our own parents – had lent their assent, or worse, their enthusiastic assistance to the Nazi regime robbed their generation of its moral authority and left us, their children, unmoored and adrift.

In a profound sense I felt homeless. An accident of fate had landed me on the planet with a German passport, and with German as my mother tongue, but where did I really belong? Where would I go? What would I do with my life?

There had been physicians in my family for generations and there was always an expectation that I, too, would enter that profession. Yet I felt no strong pull towards medicine. As a young man my only real passion was music, particularly jazz, with its anarchic improvisations and disobedient rhythms; and the fact that it had been banned by the Nazis only made it all the more appealing to me. I would have been perfectly happy to linger indefinitely in the world of music, but eventually, like a debt come due, medicine summoned me, and I surrendered myself to the profession of my forebears.

In hindsight I am glad that my mother nudged me gently yet insistently in the direction of medical school. While music has delighted and comforted me throughout my life, it has been medicine that has truly defined me, stretching, challenging and nourishing me intellectually, even as it tested me on a personal level almost to the limits of my endurance.

Certainly, I had never anticipated that asking basic and necessary questions as a scientist might prove so fiercely controversial, and that as a result of my research I might become involved in ideological wrangling and political intrigue emanating from the highest level.

If I had known the difficulties I would face, the stark choices, the conflicts and machinations that awaited me, would I have chosen to spend my life in medicine? Yes, I would. Becoming a physician and pursuing the career of a scientist has afforded me not only the opportunity to speak out against the dangerous and growing influence of pseudoscience in medicine, but also, paradoxically, has given me both the reason and the courage to look back steadily at the unbearable past.

This is the story of how I finally found where I belong.

Guest post by Louise Lubetkin

(A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND: A MEMOIRE OF SEARCHING FOR TRUTH AND FINDING TROUBLE has now been published. An apt opportunity perhaps to post a letter and comment from the person who helped me GREATLY in finishing it.)

People write memoirs for a variety of reasons but perhaps one of the strongest impelling forces is the need to make sense of one’s own experiences. It is not surprising that you, who spent your entire professional career searching for explanations, identifying associations and parsing correlations, found yourself looking at your own life with the same analytical curiosity. Memoir is in many respects a natural choice in this regard.

That you chose to undertake a profoundly personal inventory at this juncture is also understandable in human terms. Retirement, whether anticipated and planned for, or (as in your case) thrust rudely upon you, reorders one’s sense of identity in ways that cannot fail to prompt reflection. It would have been surprising had you not felt an urge to look back and take stock, to trace the narrative arc of your life from its beginnings in post-war Germany all the way to the quiet house in rural Suffolk where you now sit, surrounded by the comfort of books and the accumulated paraphernalia of a life spent digging and delving in search of the building blocks of truth.

Given the contentious circumstances surrounding your departure from academic life, it is quite likely that you will be asked whether your decision to write a memoir was driven, at least in part, by a desire to settle scores. I think you can dismiss such a question unhesitatingly. You have no scores to settle: you came to England after a steady and unbroken ascent to the apex of your professional career, voluntarily leaving behind a position that most people would regard with envy and deference. You were never a supplicant at Exeter’s door; far from it. The fact that things went inexorably downhill over the course of your 20 years’ tenure there, and ended so deplorably, is not a reflection on you, your department, or the quality or quantity of work you turned out. Rather, it is a reflection on the very nature of the work you went there to do – and if there is any message in your memoir, it is this:

Alternative medicine is not, at its heart, a logical enterprise, and its adherents are not committed to – nor even interested in – a rational evaluation of their methods. Rather, alternative medicine is primarily an ideological position, a political credo, a reaction against mainstream medicine. To many of its adherents and impassioned advocates, its appeal lies not in any demonstrable therapeutic efficacy but in its perceived outsider status as the countercultural medicine, the medicine for Everyman, the David to the bullying medical-pharmaceutical Goliath. That your research work would elicit howls of protest was perhaps inevitable, given the threat it posed to the profitable and powerful alternative medicine industry. But it didn’t stop there: astonishingly, your work drew the ire of none less than the meddlesome heir apparent to the British throne. Prince Charles’ attempts to stymie your work call to mind the twelfth century martyr Thomas à Becket, of whom Henry II reputedly cried: “Oh, who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” (Henry’s sycophantic henchmen were quick to oblige, dispatching the hapless cleric on the steps of Canterbury cathedral.)

It’s clear that you were acutely aware, as a young man growing up in Germany, that science was not immune to the corrupting influence of political ideology, and that the German medical profession had entered – enthusiastically – into a Faustian compact with the Nazi regime. You have exhibited a courageous insistence on confronting and examining a national past that has at times felt like an intensely personal burden to you. It is ironic that in going to sleepy Exeter in an earnest, conscious attempt to shake off the constricting, intrigue-ridden atmosphere of academic Vienna, you ultimately found yourself once again mired in a struggle against the influence of ideology and the manipulation of science for political ends.

You went to Exeter strictly as a scientist, a skilled inquirer, a methodical investigator, expecting to be able to bring the rigors of logic and the scientific method to bear on an area of medical practice that had until then not been subjected to any kind of systematic evaluation. Instead, you were caught in a maelstrom of intrigue far worse than that which you had gratefully left behind in Vienna, buffeted and bruised by forces against which a lesser man would surely not have had the fortitude to push back so long and so hard.

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