MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

scientific misconduct

I have warned you before to be sceptical about Chinese studies. This is what I posted on this blog more than 2 years ago, for instance:

Imagine an area of therapeutics where 100% of all findings of hypothesis-testing research are positive, i.e. come to the conclusion that the treatment in question is effective. Theoretically, this could mean that the therapy is a miracle cure which is useful for every single condition in every single setting. But sadly, there are no miracle cures. Therefore something must be badly and worryingly amiss with the research in an area that generates 100% positive results.

Acupuncture is such an area; we and others have shown that Chinese trials of acupuncture hardly ever produce a negative finding. In other words, one does not need to read the paper, one already knows that it is positive – even more extreme: one does not need to conduct the study, one already knows the result before the research has started. But you might not believe my research nor that of others. We might be chauvinist bastards who want to discredit Chinese science. In this case, you might perhaps believe Chinese researchers.

In this systematic review, all randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of acupuncture published in Chinese journals were identified by a team of Chinese scientists. A total of 840 RCTs were found, including 727 RCTs comparing acupuncture with conventional treatment, 51 RCTs with no treatment controls, and 62 RCTs with sham-acupuncture controls. Among theses 840 RCTs, 838 studies (99.8%) reported positive results from primary outcomes and two trials (0.2%) reported negative results. The percentages of RCTs concealment of the information on withdraws or sample size calculations were 43.7%, 5.9%, 4.9%, 9.9%, and 1.7% respectively.

The authors concluded that publication bias might be major issue in RCTs on acupuncture published in Chinese journals reported, which is related to high risk of bias. We suggest that all trials should be prospectively registered in international trial registry in future.

END OF QUOTE

Now an even more compelling reason emerged for taking evidence from China with a pinch of salt:

A recent survey of clinical trials in China has revealed fraudulent practice on a massive scale. China’s food and drug regulator carried out a one-year review of clinical trials. They concluded that more than 80 percent of clinical data is “fabricated“. The review evaluated data from 1,622 clinical trial programs of new pharmaceutical drugs awaiting regulator approval for mass production. Officials are now warning that further evidence malpractice could still emerge in the scandal.
According to the report, much of the data gathered in clinical trials are incomplete, failed to meet analysis requirements or were untraceable. Some companies were suspected of deliberately hiding or deleting records of adverse effects, and tampering with data that did not meet expectations.

“Clinical data fabrication was an open secret even before the inspection,” the paper quoted an unnamed hospital chief as saying. Contract research organizations seem have become “accomplices in data fabrication due to cutthroat competition and economic motivation.”

A doctor at a top hospital in the northern city of Xian said the problem doesn’t lie with insufficient regulations governing clinical trials data, but with the failure to implement them. “There are national standards for clinical trials in the development of Western pharmaceuticals,” he said. “Clinical trials must be carried out in three phases, and they must be assessed at the very least for safety,” he said. “But I don’t know what happened here.”

Public safety problems in China aren’t limited to the pharmaceutical industry and the figure of 80 percent is unlikely to surprise many in a country where citizens routinely engage in the bulk-buying of overseas-made goods like infant formula powder. Guangdong-based rights activist Mai Ke said there is an all-pervasive culture of fakery across all products made in the country. “It’s not just the medicines,” Mai said. “In China, everything is fake, and if there’s a profit in pharmaceuticals, then someone’s going to fake them too.” He said the problem also extends to traditional Chinese medicines, which are widely used in conjunction with Western pharmaceuticals across the healthcare system.
“It’s just harder to regulate the fakes with traditional medicines than it is with Western pharmaceuticals, which have strict manufacturing guidelines,” he said.

According to Luo, academic ethics is an underdeveloped field in China, leading to an academic culture that is accepting of manipulation of data. “I don’t think that the 80 percent figure is overstated,” Luo said.

And what should we conclude from all this?

I find it very difficult to reach a verdict that does not sound hopelessly chauvinistic but feel that we have little choice but to distrust the evidence that originates from China. At the very minimum, I think, we must scrutinise it thoroughly; whenever it looks too good to be true, we ought to discard it as unreliable and await independent replications.

Some osteopaths – similar to their chiropractic, naturopathic, homeopathic, etc. colleagues – claim they can treat almost any condition under the sun. Even gynaecological ones? Sure! But is the claim true? Let’s find out.

The aim of this recent review was to evaluate the effects of the osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) on women with gynaecological and obstetric disorders. An extensive search from inception to April 2014 was conducted on MEDLINE, Embase, the Cochrane library using MeSH and free terms. Clinical studies investigating the effect of OMT in gynaecologic and obstetric conditions were included as well as unpublished works. Reviews and personal contributions were excluded. Studies were screened for population, outcome, results and adverse effects by two independent reviewers using an ad-hoc data extraction form. The high heterogeneity of the studies led to a narrative review.

In total, 24 studies were included. They addressed the following conditions: back pain and low back functioning in pregnancy, pain and drug use during labor and delivery, infertility and subfertility, dysmenorrhea, symptoms of (peri)menopause and pelvic pain. Overall, OMT was considered to be effective for pregnancy related back pain. For all other gynaecological and obstetrical conditions the evidence was considered to be uncertain. Only three studies mentioned adverse events after OMT.

The authors concluded that, although positive effects were found, the heterogeneity of study designs, the low number of studies and the high risk of bias of included trials prevented any indication on the effect of osteopathic care. Further investigation with more pragmatic methodology, better and detailed description of interventions and systematic reporting of adverse events are recommended in order to obtain solid and generalizable results.

Given the fact that the lead authors of this review come from the “Accademia Italiana Osteopatia Tradizionale, Pescara, Italy, we can probably answer the question in the title of this blog with a straight NO. I see no reason why OMT should work for gynaecological conditions, and I am not in the least surprised to read that there is no clinical evidence for this notion. Sadly, this is unlikely to stop osteopaths to claim otherwise and continue to prey on the desperate and the gullible.

One might thus say that this review is totally unremarkable – but I would beg to differ: it highlights yet again one very important finding, namely the fact that trials of alternative therapies far too often fail to report adverse effects. I have stated this often already, but I will say it again: THIS OMISSION IS A VIOLATION OF RESEARCH ETHICS WHICH GIVES US A FALSE POSITIVE OVERALL PICTURE OF THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE.

WARNING: THIS MIGHT MAKE YOU LAUGH OUT LOUDLY AND UNCONTROLLABLY.

Deepak Chopra rarely publishes in medical journals (I suppose, he has better things to do). I was therefore intrigued when I saw a recent article of which he is a co-author.

The ‘study‘ in question allegedly examined the effects of a comprehensive residential mind–body program on well-being. The authors describe it as “a quasi-randomized trial comparing the effects of participation in a 6-day Ayurvedic system of medicine-based comprehensive residential program with a 6-day residential vacation at the same retreat location.” They included 69 healthy women and men who received the Ayurvedic intervention addressing physical and emotional well-being through group meditation and yoga, massage, diet, adaptogenic herbs, lectures, and journaling. Key components of the program include physical cleansing through ingestion of herbs, fiber, and oils that support the body’s natural detoxification pathways and facilitate healthy elimination; two Ayurvedic meals daily (breakfast and lunch) that provide a light plant-based diet; daily Ayurvedic oil massage treatments; and heating treatments through the use of sauna and/or steam. The program includes lectures on Ayurvedic principles and lifestyle as well as lectures on meditation and yoga philosophy. The study group also participated in twice-daily group meditation and daily yoga and practiced breathing exercises (pranayama) as well as emotional expression through a process of journaling and emotional support. During the program, participants received a 1-hour integrative medical consultation with a physician and follow-up with an Ayurvedic health educator.

The control group simply had a vacation without any of the above therapies in the same resort. They were asked to do what they would normally do on a resort vacation with the additional following restrictions: they were asked not to engage in more exercise than they would in their normal lifestyle and to refrain from using La Costa Resort spa services. They were also asked not to drink ginger tea or take Gingko biloba during the 2 days before and during the study week.

Recruitment was via email announcements on the University of California San Diego faculty and staff and Chopra Center for Wellbeing list-servers. Study flyers stated that the week-long Self-Directed Biological Transformation Initiative (SBTI) study would be conducted at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing, located at the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California, in order to learn more about the psychosocial and physiologic effects of the 6-day Perfect Health (PH) Program compared with a 6-day stay at the La Costa Resort. The study participants were not blinded, and site investigators and study personnel knew to which group participants were assigned.

Participants in the Ayurvedic program showed significant and sustained increases in ratings of spirituality and gratitude compared with the vacation group, which showed no change. The Ayurvedic participants also showed increased ratings for self-compassion as well as less anxiety at the 1-month follow-up.

The authors arrived at the following conclusion: Findings suggest that a short-term intensive program providing holistic instruction and experience in mind–body healing practices can lead to significant and sustained increases in perceived well-being and that relaxation alone is not enough to improve certain aspects of well-being.

This ‘study’ had ethical approval from the University of California San Diego and was supported by the Fred Foundation, the MCJ Amelior Foundation, the National Philanthropic Trust, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Chopra Foundation. The paper’s first author is director of research at the Chopra Foundation. Deepak Chopra is the co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing.

Did I promise too much?

Isn’t this paper hilarious?

Just for the record, let me formulate a short conclusion that actually fits the data from this ‘study’: Lots of TLC, attention and empathy does make some people feel better.

This is hardly something one needs to write home about; and certainly nothing to do a study on!

But which journal would publish such unadulterated advertising?

On this blog, I have mentioned the JACM several times before. Recently, I wrote about the new man in charge of it. I concluded stating WATCH THIS SPACE.

I think the wait is now over – this paper is from the latest issue of the JACM, and I am sure we all agree that the new editor has just shown us of what he is made and where he wants to take his journal.

Just as I thought that this cannot get any better, it did! It did so in the form of a second paper which is evidently reporting from the same ‘study’. Here is its abstract unaltered in its full beauty:

The effects of integrative medicine practices such as meditation and Ayurveda on human physiology are not fully understood. The aim of this study was to identify altered metabolomic profiles following an Ayurveda-based intervention. In the experimental group, 65 healthy male and female subjects participated in a 6-day Panchakarma-based Ayurvedic intervention which included herbs, vegetarian diet, meditation, yoga, and massage. A set of 12 plasma phosphatidylcholines decreased (adjusted p < 0.01) post-intervention in the experimental (n = 65) compared to control group (n = 54) after Bonferroni correction for multiple testing; within these compounds, the phosphatidylcholine with the greatest decrease in abundance was PC ae C36:4 (delta = -0.34). Application of a 10% FDR revealed an additional 57 metabolites that were differentially abundant between groups. Pathway analysis suggests that the intervention results in changes in metabolites across many pathways such as phospholipid biosynthesis, choline metabolism, and lipoprotein metabolism. The observed plasma metabolomic alterations may reflect a Panchakarma-induced modulation of metabotypes. Panchakarma promoted statistically significant changes in plasma levels of phosphatidylcholines, sphingomyelins and others in just 6 days. Forthcoming studies that integrate metabolomics with genomic, microbiome and physiological parameters may facilitate a broader systems-level understanding and mechanistic insights into these integrative practices that are employed to promote health and well-being.

Now that I managed to stop laughing about the first paper, I am not just amused but also puzzled by the amount of contradictions the second article seems to cause. Were there 65 or 69 individuals in the experimental group? Was the study randomised, quasi-randomised or not randomised? All of these versions are implied at different parts of the articles. It turns out that they randomised some patients, while allocating others without randomisation – and this clearly means the study was NOT randomised. Was the aim of the study ‘to identify altered metabolomic profiles following an Ayurveda-based intervention’ or ‘to examine the effects of a comprehensive residential mind–body program on well-being’?

I am sure that others will find further contradictions and implausibilites, if they look hard enough.

The funniest inconsistency, in my opinion, is that Deepak Chopra does not even seem to be sure to which university department he belongs. Is it the ‘Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA.’ as indicated in the 1st paper or is it the ‘Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California, USA’ as listed in the 2nd article?

Does he know from which planet he is?

 

It would be easy to continue this series on ‘tricks of the trade’ for quite a while. But this might get boring, and I have therefore decided to call it a day. So here is the last instalment (feel free to post further tricks that you may know of [in the comments section below]):

CRITICS DON’T UNDERSTAND

It is almost inevitable that, sooner or later, someone will object to some aspect of alternative medicine. In all likelihood, his or her arguments are rational and based on evidence. If that happens, the practitioner has several options to save his bacon (and income). One of the easiest and most popular is to claim that “of course, you cannot agree with me because you do not understand!”

The practitioner now needs to explain that, in order to achieve the level of expertise he has acquired, one has to do much more than to rationalise or know about science. In fact, one has to understand the subject on a much deeper level. One has to immerse oneself into it, open one’s mind completely and become a different human being altogether. This cannot be achieved by scientific study alone; it requires years of meditative work. And not everyone has the ability to go down this difficult path. It takes a lot of energy, insight and vision to become a true healer. A true Deepak Chopra is not born but trained through hard work, dedication and concentration.

Critics who disagree are really to be pitied. They fail to exist on quite the same level as those who ‘are in the know’. Therefore one must not get annoyed with those who disagree, they cannot understand because they have not seen the light.

My advice is to start thinking critically and read up about the NO TRUE SCOTSMAN FALLACY; this will quickly enable you to look beyond the charisma of these gurus and expose their charlatanry to the full.

RESEARCH IS BEING SUPRESSED

Some critics stubbornly insist on evidence for the therapeutic claims made by quacks. That attitude can be awkward for the alternative practitioner – because usually there is no good evidence.

Cornered in this way, quacks often come up with a simple but effective conspiracy theory: the research has been done and it has produced fabulous results, but it has been supressed by… well, by whoever comes to mind. Usually BIG PHARMA or ‘the scientific establishment’ have to be dragged out into the frame again.

According to this theory, the pharmaceutical industry (or whoever comes in handy) was so shaken by the findings of the research that they decided to make it disappear. They had no choice, really; the alternative therapy in question was so very effective that it would have put BIG PHARMA straight out of business for ever. As we all know BIG PHARMA to be evil to the core, they had no ethical or moral qualms about committing such a crime to humanity. Profits must come before charity!

My advice is to explain to such charlatans that such conspiracy theories do, in fact, merely prove is that the quack’s treatment is not effective against their prosecution complex.

CRITICS ARE BOUGHT AND CORRUPT

If  critics of alternative medicine become threatening to the quackery trade, an easy and much-used method is to discredit them by spreading lies about them. If the above-mentioned ploy “they cannot understand” fails to silence the nasty critics, the next step must be to claim they are corrupt. Why else would they spend their time exposing quackery?

Many people – alternative practitioners included – can only think of financial motivations; the possibility that someone might do a job for altruistic reasons does not occur to them. Therefore, it sounds most plausible that the critics of alternative medicine are doing it for money – after all, the quacks also quack for money.

My advice to potential users of alternative medicine who are confused by such allegations: do your own research and find out for yourself who is bought by whom and who has a financial interest in quackery selling well.

EVEN NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS AGREE WITH US

It is true, there are some Nobel Prize winners who defend homeopathy or other bogus treatments. Whenever this happens, the apologists of alternative medicine have a field day. They then cite the Nobel laureate ad nauseam and imply that his or her views prove their quackery to be correct.

Little do they know that they are merely milking yet another classical fallacy and that such regrettable events merely demonstrate that even bright people can make mistakes.

My advice is to check what the Nobel laureate actually said – more often than not, it turns out that a much-publicised quote is, in fact, a misquote – and what his or her qualifications are for making such a statement; a Nobel Prize in literature, for instance, is not a sufficient qualification for commenting on healthcare issues.

AS I ALRADY SAID: IF YOU KNOW OF MORE ‘TRICKS OF THE QUACKARY TRADE’, PLEASE POST THEM BELOW.

The ACUPUNCTURE NOW FOUNDATION (ANF) have recently published a document that is worth drawing your attention to. But first I should perhaps explain who the ANF are. They state that “The Acupuncture Now Foundation (ANF) was founded in 2014 by a diverse group of people from around the world who were concerned about common misunderstandings regarding acupuncture and wanted to help acupuncture reach its full potential. Our goal is to become recognized as a leader in the collection and dissemination of unbiased and authoritative information about all aspects of the practice of acupuncture.”

This, I have to admit, sounds like music to my ears! So, I studied the document in some detail – and the music quickly turned into musac.

The document which they call a ‘white paper’ promises ‘a review of the research’. Reading even just the very first sentence, my initial enthusiasm turned into bewilderment: “It is now widely accepted across health care disciplines throughout the world that acupuncture can be effective in treating such painful conditions as migraine headaches, and low back, neck and knee pain, as well as a range of painful musculoskeletal conditions.” Any review of research that starts with such a deeply uncritical and overtly promotional statement, must be peculiar (quite apart from the fact that the ANF do not seem to appreciate that back and neck pain are musculoskeletal by nature).

As I read on, my amazement grew into bewilderment. Allow me to present a few further statements from this review (together with a link to the article provided by the ANF in support and a very brief comment by myself) which I found more than a little over-optimistic, far-fetched or plainly wrong:

Male fertility, especially sperm production and motility, has also been shown to improve with acupuncture. In a recent animal study, electro-acupuncture was found to enhance germ cell proliferation. This action is believed to facilitate the recovery of sperm production (spermatogenesis) and may restore normal semen parameters in subfertile patients.

The article supplied as evidence for this statement refers to an animal experiment using a model where sperm are exposed to heat. This has almost no bearing on the clinical situation in humans and does not lend itself to any clinical conclusions regarding the treatment of sub-fertile men.

In a recent meta-analysis, researchers concluded that the efficacy of acupuncture as a stand-alone therapy was comparable to antidepressants in improving clinical response and alleviating symptom severity of major depressive disorder (MDD). Also, acupuncture was superior to antidepressants and waitlist controls in improving both response and symptom severity of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The incidence of adverse events with acupuncture was significantly lower than antidepressants.

The review provided as evidence is wide open to bias; it was criticised thus: “the authors’ findings did not reflect the evidence presented and limitations in study numbers, sample sizes and study pooling, particularly in some subgroup analyses, suggested that the conclusions are not reliable”. Moreover, we need to know that by no means all reviews of the subject confirm this positive conclusion, for instance, thisthis, or this one; all of the latter reviews are more up-to-date than the one provided by ANF. Crucially, a Cochrane review concluded that “the evidence is inconclusive to allow us to make any recommendations for depression-specific acupuncture”.

“A randomized controlled trial of acupuncture and counseling for patients presenting with depression, after having consulted their general practitioner in primary care, showed that both interventions were associated with significantly reduced depression at three months when compared to usual care alone.”

We have discussed the trial in question on this blog. It follows the infamous ‘A+B versus B’ design which cannot possibly produce a negative result.

Now, please re-read the first paragraph of this post; but be careful not to fall off your chair laughing.

There would be more (much more) to criticise in the ANF report but, I think, these examples are ENOUGH!

Let me finish by quoting from the ANF’s view on the future as cited in their new ‘white paper’: “Looking ahead, it is clear that acupuncture is poised to make significant inroads into conventional medicine. It has the potential to become a part of every hospital’s standard of care and, in fact, this is already starting to take place not only in the U.S., but internationally. The treatment is a cost-effective and safe method of relieving pain in emergency rooms, during in-patient stays and after surgery. It can lessen post-operative nausea, constipation and urinary difficulties, and have a positive impact on conditions like hypertension, anxiety and insomnia…

Driven by popular demand and a growing body of scientific evidence, acupuncture is beginning to be taken seriously by mainstream conventional medicine, which is incorporating it into holistic health programs for the good of patients and the future of health care. In order for this transition to take place most effectively, misunderstandings about acupuncture need to be addressed. We hope this white paper has helped to clarify some of those misunderstandings and encourage anyone with questions to contact the Acupuncture Now Foundation.”

My question is short and simple: IGNORANCE OR FRAUD?

 

Yesterday, I wrote about a new acupuncture trial. Amongst other things, I wanted to find out whether the author who had previously insisted I answer his questions about my view on the new NICE guideline would himself answer a few questions when asked politely. To remind you, this is what I wrote:

This new study was designed as a randomized, sham-controlled trial of acupuncture for persistent allergic rhinitis in adults investigated possible modulation of mucosal immune responses. A total of 151 individuals were randomized into real and sham acupuncture groups (who received twice-weekly treatments for 8 weeks) and a no acupuncture group. Various cytokines, neurotrophins, proinflammatory neuropeptides, and immunoglobulins were measured in saliva or plasma from baseline to 4-week follow-up.

Statistically significant reduction in allergen specific IgE for house dust mite was seen only in the real acupuncture group. A mean (SE) statistically significant down-regulation was also seen in pro-inflammatory neuropeptide substance P (SP) 18 to 24 hours after the first treatment. No significant changes were seen in the other neuropeptides, neurotrophins, or cytokines tested. Nasal obstruction, nasal itch, sneezing, runny nose, eye itch, and unrefreshed sleep improved significantly in the real acupuncture group (post-nasal drip and sinus pain did not) and continued to improve up to 4-week follow-up.

The authors concluded that acupuncture modulated mucosal immune response in the upper airway in adults with persistent allergic rhinitis. This modulation appears to be associated with down-regulation of allergen specific IgE for house dust mite, which this study is the first to report. Improvements in nasal itch, eye itch, and sneezing after acupuncture are suggestive of down-regulation of transient receptor potential vanilloid 1.

…Anyway, the trial itself raises a number of questions – unfortunately I have no access to the full paper – which I will post here in the hope that my acupuncture friend, who are clearly impressed by this paper, might provide the answers in the comments section below:

  1. Which was the primary outcome measure of this trial?
  2. What was the power of the study, and how was it calculated?
  3. For which outcome measures was the power calculated?
  4. How were the subjective endpoints quantified?
  5. Were validated instruments used for the subjective endpoints?
  6. What type of sham was used?
  7. Are the reported results the findings of comparisons between verum and sham, or verum and no acupuncture, or intra-group changes in the verum group?
  8. What other treatments did each group of patients receive?
  9. Does anyone really think that this trial shows that “acupuncture is a safe, effective and cost-effective treatment for allergic rhinitis”?

In the comments section, the author wrote: “after you have read the full text and answered most of your questions for yourself, it might then be a more appropriate time to engage in any meaningful discussion, if that is in fact your intent”, and I asked him to send me his paper. As he does not seem to have the intention to do so, I will answer the questions myself and encourage everyone to have a close look at the full paper [which I can supply on request].

  1. The myriad of lab tests were defined as primary outcome measures.
  2. Two sentences are offered, but they do not allow me to reconstruct how this was done.
  3. No details are provided.
  4. Most were quantified with a 3 point scale.
  5. Mostly not.
  6. Needle insertion at non-acupoints.
  7. The results are a mixture of inter- and intra-group differences.
  8. Patients were allowed to use conventional treatments and the frequency of this use was reported in patient diaries.
  9. I don’t think so.

So, here is my interpretation of this study:

  • It lacked power for many outcome measures, certainly the clinical ones.
  • There were hardly any differences between the real and the sham acupuncture group.
  • Most of the relevant results were based on intra-group changes, rather than comparing sham with real acupuncture, a fact, which is obfuscated in the abstract.
  • In a controlled trial fluctuations within one group must never be interpreted as caused by the treatment.
  • There were dozens of tests for statistical significance, and there seems to be no correction for multiple testing.
  • Thus the few significant results that emerged when comparing sham with real acupuncture might easily be false positives.
  • Patient-blinding seems questionable.
  • McDonald as the only therapist of the study might be suspected to have influenced his patients through verbal and non-verbal communications.

I am sure there are many more flaws, particularly in the stats, and I leave it to others to identify them. The ones I found are, however, already serious enough, in my view, to call for a withdrawal of this paper. Essentially, the authors seem to have presented a study with largely negative findings as a trial with positive results showing that acupuncture is an effective therapy for allergic rhinitis. Subsequently, McDonald went on social media to inflate his findings even more. One might easily ask: is this scientific misconduct or just poor science?

I would be most interested to hear what you think about it [if you want to see the full article, please send me an email].

“Conflicts of interest should always be disclosed.”

This is what I wrote in the ‘RULES’ of this blog when I first started it almost 4 years ago. Sadly, very few people writing comments observe this rule. Perhaps, I just thought, I did not observe it either? So, here are my conflicts of interest: none.

Not true!!! I hear some people say. But it is!

I have no financial interest in any ‘Big Pharma’ or  ‘TINY CAM’, and I get not a penny for writing this blog.

How do I pay for my living? Mind your own business… well, on second thought, even that must not be a secret: I get a small pension and have some savings.

Still not convinced?

Perhaps it’s time to define what ‘conflicts of interests’ are. According to Wikipedia, they can be defined as  situations in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests, financial interest, or otherwise, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation of the individual or organization.

So, not having financial benefits from my current work does not necessarily mean that I have no conflicts of interest. The above definitions vaguely mentions ‘or otherwise’ – and that could be important. What could this mean in the context of this blog?

Well, I might have very strong beliefs, for instance (for instance, very strong beliefs that acupuncture is by definition nonsense [see below]). We all know that strong beliefs can corrupt motivation (and a lot more). And if I ask myself, do you have strong beliefs?, I have to say: Yes, absolutely!

I believe that:

  • good evidence is a prerequisite for progress in healthcare,
  • good evidence must be established by rigorous research,
  • we should not tolerate double standards in healthcare,
  • patients deserve to be treated with the best available treatments,
  • making therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence is wrong.

These strong beliefs might make me biased in the eyes of many who comment on this blog. In Particular, we recently had a bunch of acupuncturists who went on the rampage attacking me personally the best they could. However, a rational analysis of my beliefs can hardly produce evidence for bias against anything other than the promotion of unproven therapies to the unsuspecting public.

The above mentioned acupuncturists seem to think that I have always been against acupuncture for the sake of being against acupuncture. However, this is not true. The proof for this statement is very simple: I have published quite a bit of articles that concluded positively – even (WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT?) about acupuncture for back pain! A prominently published meta-analysis of 2005 (with me as senior author) concluded:  “Acupuncture effectively relieves chronic low back pain.” (This of course was 11 years ago when the evidence was, in fact, positive; today, this seems to have changed – just like the NICE guidelines [probably not a coincidence!])

Conflicts of interest? No, not on my side, I think.

But what about the ‘other side’?

The unruly horde of acupuncturists (no, this is not an ad hominem attack, it’s a fact) who recently made dozens of ad hominem attacks against me, what about them?

  • They earn their money with acupuncture.
  • They have invested in acupuncture training often for long periods of time.
  • They have invested in practice equipment etc.
  • Some of them sell books on acupuncture.
  • Others run courses.
  • And all of them very clearly and demonstrably  have strong beliefs about acupuncture.

I think the latter point constitutes by far the most important conflict of interest in this context.

And this is where the somewhat trivial story has an unexpected twist and gets truly bizarre:

I have just leant that the same group of conflicted acupuncturists are now planning to publicly attack the panel of experts responsible for drafting the NICE guidelines. The reason? They feel that this panel had significant conflicts of interest that led them to come out against acupuncture.

Perhaps I should mention that I was not a member of this group, but I suspect that some of its members might have links to the pharmaceutical industry. It is almost impossible to find top experts in any area of medicine who do not have such links. You either gather experts with potential conflicts of interest, or you get non-experts without them. Would that bias them against acupuncture or any other alternative therapy? I very much doubt it.

What I do not doubt for a minute is that conflicts of interest are of major importance in these discussions. And by that I mean the more than obvious (but nevertheless undeclared) conflicts of interest of the acupuncturists. It seems that those with the strongest conflicts of interest shout the loudest about the non-existent or irrelevant conflict of interest of those who do not happen to share their quasi-religious belief in acupuncture.

While over on my post about the new NICE GUIDELINES on acupuncture for back pain, the acupuncturists’ assassination attempts of my character, competence, integrity and personality are in full swing, I have decided to employ my time more fruitfully and briefly comment on a new piece of acupuncture research.

This new Italian study was to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture for the management of hot flashes in women with breast cancer.

A total of 190 women with breast cancer were randomly assigned to two groups. Random assignment was performed with stratification for hormonal therapy; the allocation ratio was 1:1. Both groups received a booklet with information about climacteric syndrome and its management to be followed for at least 12 weeks. In addition, the acupuncture group received 10 traditional acupuncture treatment sessions involving needling of predefined acupoints.

The primary outcome was hot flash score at the end of treatment (week 12), calculated as the frequency multiplied by the average severity of hot flashes. The secondary outcomes were climacteric symptoms and quality of life, measured by the Greene Climacteric and Menopause Quality of Life scales. Health outcomes were measured for up to 6 months after treatment. Expectation and satisfaction of treatment effect and safety were also evaluated. We used intention-to-treat analyses.

Of the participants, 105 were randomly assigned to enhanced self-care and 85 to acupuncture plus enhanced self-care. Acupuncture plus enhanced self-care was associated with a significantly lower hot flash score than enhanced self-care at the end of treatment (P < .001) and at 3- and 6-month post-treatment follow-up visits (P = .0028 and .001, respectively). Acupuncture was also associated with fewer climacteric symptoms and higher quality of life in the vasomotor, physical, and psychosocial dimensions (P < .05).

The authors concluded that acupuncture in association with enhanced self-care is an effective integrative intervention for managing hot flashes and improving quality of life in women with breast cancer.

This hardly needs a comment, as I have been going on about this study design many times before: the ‘A+B versus B’ design can only produce positive findings. Any such study concluding that ‘acupuncture (or whatever other intervention) is effective’ can therefore not be a legitimate test of a hypothesis and ought to be categorised as pseudo-science. Sadly, this problem seems more the rule than the exception in the realm of acupuncture research. That’s a pity really… because, if there is potential in acupuncture at all, this sort of thing can only distract from it.

I think the JOURNAL OF CLINICAL ONCOLOGY, its editors and reviewers, should be ashamed of having published such misleading rubbish.

Edzard Ernst – why he changed his mind! This is the title of a blog which I just found. It is such fun to read that I must show it to you in full [I added a few numbered footnotes in square brackets]:

BBC Radio 4 gave Professor Edzard Ernst a 15 minute slot to explain “Why I Changed My Mind’ on Wednesday 4th May 2016. It was repeated on 12th May 2016. He was interviewed by Dominic Lawson [1]. The programme demonstrates the lengths to which the BBC is prepared to go in order under undermine Alternative Medicine, and Homeopathy, in particular [2].

Lawson set the tone. Ernst, he stated, is hated by alternative health practitioners, the Prince of Wales tried to get him sacked, and he eventually lost his academic post because of the criticism he attracted for his work. Ernst was left to agree with this dreadfully unfair and unreasonable treatment [3]. So Ernst was then led to explain his ‘change of mind’ about homeopathy. As a friend and colleague of mine said,

“Ernst (says) that as a German, he was raised on Homeopathy, and later treated his patients with homeopathy. And it worked! But when he approached it ‘scientifically’, he concluded that it’s merely placebo.”

So let’s be clear. Ernst’s experience of homeopathy has  been that it does work [4], but that the science he has looked at does not demonstrate that it works. (Even this is wrong [5], but leave that for now!) So people do get better as the result of homeopathic treatment, but ‘science’, or at least Ernst’s science [6], does not understand why it should [7]. Ernst also said that he was convinced, at the time, that he was ‘helping patients’.

Lawson then asked his most difficult question (sic). If he knew that homeopathy worked, why did it work? Ernst’s response was that it was charlatanism and quackery, and was “quite puzzling’ really [8]. So as homeopathy worked, but science said it should not work [8], he went on to study this in his post at Exeter University.

Lawson, in the great tradition of BBC impartiality [2], (sic), continued to lead him on. “When did you decide that homeopathy was useless, delusional?”

Ernst said that when he ‘did the science’ it became clear that homeopathy is placebo.

Now, lets look at this word, placebo. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘the placebo effects’ as”

“A beneficial effect produced by a placebo drug or treatment, which cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself, and must therefore be due to the patient’s belief in that treatment”

So by using the term ‘placebo’ Ernst is once again saying the homeopathy has a ‘beneficial effect’ on patients who are ill [9]. Lawson did ask Ernst whether there was anything wrong using placebo if this brought positive benefits to patients. Ernst said that people got better anyway! (Is it really is a simple as this?) [7]

Lawson, now thoroughly convinced of Ernst’s arguments, asked his whether he thought homeopaths were lying. With some apparent grace, Ernst said that lying was a strong term, by the were ‘deluded’, and ‘treated homeopathy as a religion’.

Lawson came back, asking why there were lots of qualified doctors who believe in homeopathy, and whether they should they be struck off, or stopped from practising? No, said Ernst, they were just not thinking critically, and needed to be educated out of their delusions.

Presumably, for both Lawson and Ernst, using a medical therapy that worked and brought benefit to patients [7], but which science could not explain, should be restricted, if not banned altogether.

Lawson’s final question clearly demonstrated his impartiality. “Can we justify homeopathy, or any other kind of quackery? (My emphasis). “No”, said Ernst, predictably!

The BBC regularly broadcasts these kind of anti-homeopathy, anti-alternative-medicine programmes, with never an attempt to redress the balance [2]. They will never broadcast a programme that provides an alternative medical view. The BBC appears to be firmly in the camp of the conventional medical establishment [2], and committed to providing time to anti-homeopaths without any ‘right of reply’.

Why, for example, was there no question about the quality of the ‘science’ Ernst is associated with?  Certainly, his science has come under serious scrutiny. For instance, I blogged about “The contribution of Professor Edzard Ernst to disinformation about Homeopathy” in September 1915 [!!!]. This followed an assessment made by Professor Robert Kahn about the quality of Ernst’s science. This was his conclusion [10].

“I have never seen a science writer so blatantly biased as Edzard Ernst: his work should not be considered of any worth at all, and discarded.”

Kahn’s paper shows, in his view, how ‘science’ has been taken over by ideology, (or as I suggested the financial interests of Big Corporations like Big Pharma). He revealed that in order to demonstrate homeopathy is ineffective over 95% of scientific research into homeopathy has to be discarded or removed! [10]

There was, of course, no mention of this in the BBC programme! [11]

So if Ernst’s change of mind was ‘scientific’, it was based on bad science [12], the kind of science much discussed in this blog, bought science, cheque book science, the kind of science based on university faculties funded by the pharmaceutical industry [13]. Ernst’s funding dried up when his academic position had become untenable [14], and he lost the support of his financial backers [15]. As my friends and colleague said, in response to the programme:

“Ernst’s religion is Science, not the well being of the patients. I wonder how many listeners will
be influenced by him as he does come across as an experienced and rational man?” 

I agree with her assessment. Anyone can come over as an ‘experience and rational man’ when given an uncritical platform, such as this BBC programme proved to be. Certainly, Peter Fisher, the Queen’s homeopath, was one of his main critics. Why, Lawson asked Ernst, did homeopathy have ‘such a grip’ on the Royal Family? Ernst did not know, but he did know that “when they get really ill they do not go to a homeopathy, otherwise they would not get so old!”

At this point I began to wonder on what knowledge Ernst used to know how the Royal Family were being treated, and scientific basis his belief that their longevity was nothing to do with homeopathy? The question was never asked, so we will, I fear, never know! [16] [1] you can listen to the programme here

[2] a serious allegation for which no evidence is provided, and I suppose none exists

[3] this is the truth

[4] not true, my experience was that patients got better for which there are good, scientifically sound explanations that do not involve homeopathy

[5] no, it’s not

[6] the best available evidence today which has little to do with ‘my’ science; might this be a little attempt at an ad hominem?

[7] no, science does understand the phenomena involved well: placebo, regression towards the mean, natural history of the disease etc.

[8] a wilful misinterpretation of my words

[9] no, this is not what I said, homeopathic remedies are ineffective and the observed effects are due to other phenomena

[10] not Kahn but Hahn; and his criticism is laughable, see here

[11] the programme is a series of interviews with people who have changed their mind on an important subject; such questions do not belong there

[12] any proof for that other than Hahn?

[13] false and libellous allegation

[14] no, when HRH had filed his complaint; this is all described in detail in my memoir

[15] poor logic: if I had been funded by the ‘enemies of homeopathy’, my funding should have increased

[16] anyone who follows the news bulletins about the Royals will know where they go when seriously ill.

Reiki is one of the most popular types of ‘energy healing’. Reiki healers believe to be able to channel ‘healing energy’ into patients’ body thus enabling them to get healthy. If Reiki were not such a popular treatment, one could brush such claims aside and think “let the lunatic fringe believe what they want”. But as Reiki so effectively undermines consumers’ sense of reality and rationality, I feel I should continue informing the public about this subject – despite the fact that I have already reported about it several times before, for instance here, here, here, here, here and here.

A new RCT, published in a respected journal looks interesting enough for a further blog-post on the subject. The main aim of the study was to investigate the effectiveness of two psychotherapeutic approaches, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and a complementary medicine method Reiki, in reducing depression scores in adolescents. The researchers from Canada, Malaysia and Australia recruited 188 adolescent depressed adolescents. They were randomly assigned to CBT, Reiki or wait-list. Depression scores were assessed before and after 12 weeks of treatments/wait list. CBT showed a significantly greater decrease in Child Depression Inventory (CDI) scores across treatment than both Reiki (p<.001) and the wait-list control (p<.001). Reiki also showed greater decreases in CDI scores across treatment relative to the wait-list control condition (p=.031).  Male participants showed a smaller treatment effects for Reiki than did female participants. The authors concluded that both CBT and Reiki were effective in reducing the symptoms of depression over the treatment period, with effect for CBT greater than Reiki.

I find it most disappointing that these days even respected journals publish such RCTs without the necessary critical input. This study may appear to be rigorous but, in fact, it is hardly worth the paper it was printed on.

The results show that Reiki produced worse results than CBT. That I can well believe!

However, the findings also suggest that Reiki was nevertheless “effective in reducing the symptoms of depression”, as the authors put it in their conclusions. This statement is misleading!

It is based on the comparison of Reiki with doing nothing. As Reiki involves lots of attention, it can be assumed to generate a sizable placebo effect. As a proportion of the patients in the wait list group are probably disappointed for not getting such attention, they can be assumed to experience the adverse effects of their disappointment. The two phenomena combined can easily explain the result without any “effectiveness” of Reiki per se.

If such considerations are not fully discussed and made amply clear even in the conclusions of the abstract, it seems reasonable to accuse the journal of being less than responsible and the authors of being outright misleading.

As with so many papers in this area, one has to ask: WHERE DOES SLOPPY RESEARCH END AND WHERE DOES SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT BEGIN?

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