It was 20 years ago today that I started my job as ‘Professor of Complementary Medicine’ at the University of Exeter and became a full-time researcher of all matters related to alternative medicine. One issue that was discussed endlessly during these early days was the question whether alternative medicine can be investigated scientifically. There were many vociferous proponents of the view that it was too subtle, too individualised, too special for that and that it defied science in principle. Alternative medicine, they claimed, needed an alternative to science to be validated. I spent my time arguing the opposite, of course, and today there finally seems to be a consensus that alternative medicine can and should be submitted to scientific tests much like any other branch of health care.
Looking back at those debates, I think it is rather obvious why apologists of alternative medicine were so vehement about opposing scientific investigations: they suspected, perhaps even knew, that the results of such research would be mostly negative. Once the anti-scientists saw that they were fighting a lost battle, they changed their tune and adopted science – well sort of: they became pseudo-scientists (‘if you cannot beat them, join them’). Their aim was to prevent disaster, namely the documentation of alternative medicine’s uselessness by scientists. Meanwhile many of these ‘anti-scientists turned pseudo-scientists’ have made rather surprising careers out of their cunning role-change; professorships at respectable universities have mushroomed. Yes, pseudo-scientists have splendid prospects these days in the realm of alternative medicine.
The term ‘pseudo-scientist’ as I understand it describes a person who thinks he/she knows the truth about his/her subject well before he/she has done the actual research. A pseudo-scientist is keen to understand the rules of science in order to corrupt science; he/she aims at using the tools of science not to test his/her assumptions and hypotheses, but to prove that his/her preconceived ideas were correct.
So, how does one become a top pseudo-scientist? During the last 20 years, I have observed some of the careers with interest and think I know how it is done. Here are nine lessons which, if followed rigorously, will lead to success (… oh yes, in case I again have someone thick enough to complain about me misleading my readers: THIS POST IS SLIGHTLY TONGUE IN CHEEK).
- Throw yourself into qualitative research. For instance, focus groups are a safe bet. This type of pseudo-research is not really difficult to do: you assemble about 5 -10 people, let them express their opinions, record them, extract from the diversity of views what you recognise as your own opinion and call it a ‘common theme’, write the whole thing up, and – BINGO! – you have a publication. The beauty of this approach is manifold: 1) you can repeat this exercise ad nauseam until your publication list is of respectable length; there are plenty of alternative medicine journals who will hurry to publish your pseudo-research; 2) you can manipulate your findings at will, for instance, by selecting your sample (if you recruit people outside a health food shop, for instance, and direct your group wisely, you will find everything alternative medicine journals love to print); 3) you will never produce a paper that displeases the likes of Prince Charles (this is more important than you may think: even pseudo-science needs a sponsor [or would that be a pseudo-sponsor?]).
- Conduct surveys. These are very popular and highly respected/publishable projects in alternative medicine – and they are almost as quick and easy as focus groups. Do not get deterred by the fact that thousands of very similar investigations are already available. If, for instance, there already is one describing the alternative medicine usage by leg-amputated police-men in North Devon, and you nevertheless feel the urge of going into this area, you can safely follow your instinct: do a survey of leg-amputated police men in North Devon with a medical history of diabetes. There are no limits, and as long as you conclude that your participants used a lot of alternative medicine, were very satisfied with it, did not experience any adverse effects, thought it was value for money, and would recommend it to their neighbour, you have secured another publication in an alternative medicine journal.
- If, for some reason, this should not appeal to you, how about taking a sociological, anthropological or psychological approach? How about studying, for example, the differences in worldviews, the different belief systems, the different ways of knowing, the different concepts about illness, the different expectations, the unique spiritual dimensions, the amazing views on holism – all in different cultures, settings or countries? Invariably, you will, of course, conclude that one truth is at least as good as the next. This will make you popular with all the post-modernists who use alternative medicine as a playground for getting a few publications out. This approach will allow you to travel extensively and generally have a good time. Your papers might not win you a Nobel prize, but one cannot have everything.
- It could well be that, at one stage, your boss has a serious talk with you demanding that you start doing what (in his narrow mind) constitutes ‘real science’. He might be keen to get some brownie-points at the next RAE and could thus want you to actually test alternative treatments in terms of their safety and efficacy. Do not despair! Even then, there are plenty of possibilities to remain true to your pseudo-scientific principles. By now you are good at running surveys, and you could, for instance, take up your boss’ suggestion of studying the safety of your favourite alternative medicine with a survey of its users. You simply evaluate their experiences and opinions regarding adverse effects. But be careful, you are on somewhat thinner ice here; you don’t want to upset anyone by generating alarming findings. Make sure your sample is small enough for a false negative result, and that all participants are well-pleased with their alternative medicine. This might be merely a question of selecting your patients cleverly. The main thing is that your conclusion is positive. If you want to go the extra pseudo-scientific mile, mention in the discussion of your paper that your participants all felt that conventional drugs were very harmful.
- If your boss insists you tackle the daunting issue of therapeutic efficacy, there is no reason to give up pseudo-science either. You can always find patients who happened to have recovered spectacularly well from a life-threatening disease after receiving your favourite form of alternative medicine. Once you have identified such a person, you write up her experience in much detail and call it a ‘case report’. It requires a little skill to brush over the fact that the patient also had lots of conventional treatments, or that her diagnosis was assumed but never properly verified. As a pseudo-scientist, you will have to learn how to discretely make such irritating details vanish so that, in the final paper, they are no longer recognisable. Once you are familiar with this methodology, you can try to find a couple more such cases and publish them as a ‘best case series’ – I can guarantee that you will be all other pseudo-scientists’ hero!
- Your boss might point out, after you have published half a dozen such articles, that single cases are not really very conclusive. The antidote to this argument is simple: you do a large case series along the same lines. Here you can even show off your excellent statistical skills by calculating the statistical significance of the difference between the severity of the condition before the treatment and the one after it. As long as you show marked improvements, ignore all the many other factors involved in the outcome and conclude that these changes are undeniably the result of the treatment, you will be able to publish your paper without problems.
- As your boss seems to be obsessed with the RAE and all that, he might one day insist you conduct what he narrow-mindedly calls a ‘proper’ study; in other words, you might be forced to bite the bullet and learn how to plan and run an RCT. As your particular alternative therapy is not really effective, this could lead to serious embarrassment in form of a negative result, something that must be avoided at all cost. I therefore recommend you join for a few months a research group that has a proven track record in doing RCTs of utterly useless treatments without ever failing to conclude that it is highly effective. There are several of those units both in the UK and elsewhere, and their expertise is remarkable. They will teach you how to incorporate all the right design features into your study without there being the slightest risk of generating a negative result. A particularly popular solution is to conduct what they call a ‘pragmatic’ trial, I suggest you focus on this splendid innovation that never fails to produce anything but cheerfully positive findings.
- It is hardly possible that this strategy fails – but once every blue moon, all precautions turn out to be in vain, and even the most cunningly designed study of your bogus therapy might deliver a negative result. This is a challenge to any pseudo-scientist, but you can master it, provided you don’t lose your head. In such a rare case I recommend to run as many different statistical tests as you can find; chances are that one of them will nevertheless produce something vaguely positive. If even this method fails (and it hardly ever does), you can always home in on the fact that, in your efficacy study of your bogus treatment, not a single patient died. Who would be able to doubt that this is a positive outcome? Stress it clearly, select it as the main feature of your conclusions, and thus make the more disappointing findings disappear.
- Now that you are a fully-fledged pseudo-scientist who has produced one misleading or false positive result after the next, you may want a ‘proper’ confirmatory study of your pet-therapy. For this purpose run the same RCT over again, and again, and again. Eventually you want a meta-analysis of all RCTs ever published. As you are the only person who ever conducted studies on the bogus treatment in question, this should be quite easy: you pool the data of all your trials and, bob’s your uncle: a nice little summary of the totality of the data that shows beyond doubt that your therapy works. Now even your narrow-minded boss will be impressed.
These nine lessons can and should be modified to suit your particular situation, of course. Nothing here is written in stone. The one skill any pseudo-scientist must have is flexibility.
Every now and then, some smart arse is bound to attack you and claim that this is not rigorous science, that independent replications are required, that you are biased etc. etc. blah, blah, blah. Do not panic: either you ignore that person completely, or (in case there is a whole gang of nasty sceptics after you) you might just point out that:
- your work follows a new paradigm; the one of your critics is now obsolete,
- your detractors fail to understand the complexity of the subject and their comments merely reveal their ridiculous incompetence,
- your critics are less than impartial, in fact, most are bought by BIG PHARMA,
- you have a paper ‘in press’ that fully deals with all the criticism and explains how inappropriate it really is.
In closing, allow me a final word about publishing. There are hundreds of alternative medicine journals out there to chose from. They will love your papers because they are uncompromising promotional. These journals all have one thing in common: they are run by apologists of alternative medicine who abhor to read anything negative about alternative medicine. Consequently hardly a critical word about alternative medicine will ever appear in these journals. If you want to make double sure that your paper does not get criticised during the peer-review process (this would require a revision, and you don’t need extra work of that nature), you can suggest a friend for peer-reviewing it. In turn, you can offer to him/her that you do the same to him/her the next time he/she has an article to submit. This is how pseudo-scientists make sure that the body of pseudo-evidence for their pseudo-treatments is growing at a steady pace.
Researchers from the ‘International Centre for Allied Health Evidence’, University of South Australia in Adelaide wanted to determine whether massage therapy is an effective intervention for back pain. They carried out extensive literature searches to identify all systematic reviews on the subject, analysed them critically and evaluated their methodological quality. Nine systematic reviews were found. Their methodological quality varied from poor to excellent. The primary research informing these systematic reviews was generally considered to be weak quality. The findings indicated that massage may be an effective treatment option when compared to placebo or active treatment options such as relaxation, especially in the short term. There were conflicting and contradictory findings for the effectiveness of massage therapy as a treatment of non-specific low back pain when compared against other manual therapies such as mobilization, standard medical care, and acupuncture.
The authors concluded that there is an emerging body of evidence, albeit small, that supports the effectiveness of massage therapy for the treatment of non-specific low back pain in the short term. Due to common methodological flaws in the primary research, which informed the systematic reviews recommendations arising from this evidence base should be interpreted with caution.
My own systematic review from 1999 (which the authors of this systematic review of systematic reviews seem to have missed) concluded that massage seems to have some potential as a therapy for low back pain. Indeed, there seems to be unanimous agreement that massage therapy is a promising treatment. Why then do massage therapists not finally get their act together and conduct a few more high quality primary studies? Currently, we have about as many reviews as trials! Doing even more reviews will not answer the question about effectiveness!!!
And it is a damn important question. Back pain is extremely common and extremely expensive for us all. At present, we have no optimal treatment. Chiropractors and osteopaths are claiming to have found a good solution, but many experts are not convinced by their evidence and argue that the risks of spinal manipulation might not outweigh its benefits. Massage, by contrast, is almost risk-free. Considering all this, I believe we need more trials with some urgency.
So, why are such trials not forthcoming? I realise that multiple hurdles have to be taken:
- Clinical studies of that nature are expensive, and there is no obvious funding source.
- Massage therapists usually do not have enough research expertise to pull off a sound study.
- There are multiple methodological problems in conduction a definitive massage trial that might convince us all.
However, none of these obstacles are insurmountable. I suggest massage therapists team up with experts who know how to run clinical trials, hammer out a reasonable study design and approach government or other official funders for support. We need a definitive answers and we need them soon: is massage effective? which type of massage? for which patients? at which stage of non-specific low back pain?
CAM-Cancer is short for a project entitled “Concerted Action for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Assessment in the Cancer Field”. Originally funded by the European Commission, it is now hosted by the National Information Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NIFAB) at the University of Tromsø, Norway.
Our executive Committee is very international and, in my view, fairly balanced; it consists of the following experts:
- Prof Vinjar Fønnebø, The Norwegian National Research Center in CAM
- Prof Thomas Cerny, Kantonsspital St Gallen, Switzerland
- Prof Edzard Ernst, University of Exeter, UK
- Dr Markus Horneber, Department of Oncology/Hematology, Klinikum Nuernberg, Germany
- Dr Christine Paludan-Müller, Danish Cancer Society
Our work consists mainly of conducting and updating systematic reviews of treatments often used by cancer patients and providing them for free via the Internet. To date, we have concluded more than 60 such projects and they are all available for anyone to study. I have previously reported about our results in the area of herbal medicine. Today, I will briefly mention those on mind-body interventions.
The Internet is awash with information on the effectiveness of such treatments which is not always accurate, and even top-journals publish reviews which paint a rather optimistic picture: Mind-body therapies categorized as CAM could potentially serve as a positive platform from which providers could discuss CAM and even link survivor subgroups to services that may, at least, partly address unmet psychosocial needs. This would be especially relevant for survivor subgroups that have a cultural bias toward CAM. The mind-body therapies reviewed in this article have some supportive evidence and a rationale for use in cancer survivors. Although data on efficacy and mechanisms of action of mind-body therapies are incomplete and inconclusive, the potential benefits of using these therapies in survivor care plans warrant consideration.
By contrast, our reviews seem far less positive. Here are the key sentences describing the evidence of the four mind-body therapies that we at ‘CAM cancer’ have so far tackled.
- Based on one clinical trial and two pilot studies, it is not possible to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of autogenic therapy for people with cancer
- There is presently a lack of good quality, single-intervention trials, so it is not possible to draw clear conclusions about the efficacy of biofeedback for people with cancer
- Existing evidence suggests that hypnotherapy may reduce cancer therapy related pain, anticipatory nausea and vomiting, and anxiety
- There is insufficient evidence for the effectiveness of PMR for cancer patients suffering from pain, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and chemotherapy-induced nausea
The question is, what precisely does that mean? I think this evidence is compatible with several interpretations:
- Mind-body therapies are generally over-rated but not really that helpful.
- They are effective, but the research is in its infancy and currently fails to document their value adequately.
- Some mind-body therapies are effective, while others are not.
At present, it is impossible to tell which interpretation is correct. What is clear, however, is the fact that ‘CAM-Cancer’ is a source that tries its utmost to inform people accurately while doing everything possible to minimise bias.
Homeopaths can bear criticism only when it is highly diluted. Any critique from the ‘outside’ is therefore dismissed by insisting that the author fails to understand the subtleties of homeopathy. And criticism from the ‘inside’ does not exist: by definition, a homeopath does not criticise his/her own trade. Through these mechanisms, homeopaths have more or less successfully shielded themselves from all arguments against their activities and have, for the last 200 years, managed to survive in a world of make-belief.
As I will show below, I started my professional life on the side of the homeopaths – I am not proud of this fact, but there is no use denying it. When the evidence told me more and more clearly that I had been wrong, about 10 years ago, I began expressing serious doubts about the plausibility, efficacy and safety of using homeopathic remedies to treat patients in need. Homeopaths reacted not just with anger, they were also at a loss.
Their little trick of saying ‘He does not understand homeopathy and therefore his critique is invalid’ could not possibly work in my case – I had been one of them: I had attended their meetings, chaired some of their sessions, edited a book on homeopathy, accepted an invitation to join the editorial board of the journal ‘HOMEOPATHY‘ as well as a EU-panel investigating homeopathy, conducted trials, systematic reviews and meta-analyses, published over 100 articles on the subject, accepted money from Prince Charles as well as from the ‘ueber-homeopath’ George Vithoulkas for my research, and even contributed to THE INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY OF HOMEOPATHY. It would have not looked reasonable to suddenly deny my previously accepted expertise. Homeopaths thus found themselves in a pickle: critique from the ‘inside’ is not what they were used to or could easily cope with.
The homeopathic idyll was under threat, and a solution to the problem had to be found with some urgency. And soon enough, it was found. Homeopaths from across the world started claiming that I had been telling porkies about my training/qualifications in homeopathy: “Edzard Ernst has admitted that he has over the years lied or supported a lie about having homeopathic training. In reality he has had none at all! The leading so-called ‘expert’ and critic of homeopathy, Professor Edzard Ernst, has admitted that he has no qualifications in homeopathy. etc. etc. Diluting the truth to the extreme, they almost unanimously insisted that, contrary to my previous assertions, I had no training/qualifications in homeopathy. Thus, they began to argue, that I was an imposter and had insufficient knowledge, expertise and experience after all: Professor Edzard Ernst the leading ‘authority’ on homeopathy, and perhaps its most referenced critic, has no qualifications in homeopathy. William Alderson of HMC21 also claims that Ernst’s book Trick or Treatment? shows Ernst to be unreliable as a researcher into homeopathy. Opposition to homeopathy is based on propaganda, they stated. Others wrote that Edzard Ernst’ failure as a homeopath only proves he lacked some basic qualities essential to become a successful homeopath. He failed as a homeopath, and then turned a skeptic. His failure is only his failure- it does not disprove homeopathy by any way. Once he failed in putting a mark as a successful homeopath or CAM practitioner, he just tried the other way to become famous and respectable- he converted himself into a skeptic, which provided him with ample opportunities to appear on ‘anti-homeopathy’ platforms’ as an ‘authority’, ‘expert’ and ‘ex-homeopath’! Some went even further claiming that I had also lied about my medical qualifications.
These notions has been going around the internet for several years now and conveniently served as a reason to re-categorise me into the camp of the homeopathically unqualified pseudo-experts: ‘We believe that it is time to recognise that opposition to homeopathy is largely based on the opinions of individuals who are unqualified or unwilling to judge the evidence fairly’. I, by contrast, believe it is time that I disclose the full truth about ‘my double-life as a homeopath’. What exactly is my background in this area? Have I really been found out to be a confidence-trickster?
THE HOMEOPATHIC CLINICIAN
I graduated from medical school in Munich in the late 1970s and, looking for a job, I realised that there weren’t any. At the time, Germany had a surplus of doctors and all the posts I wanted were taken. Eventually, I found one in the only hospital that was run almost entirely homoeopathically, the KRANKENHAUS FUER NATURHEILWEISEN in Munich. Within about half a year, I learned how to think like a homeopath, diagnose like a homeopath and treat patients like a homeopath. I never attended formal courses or aspired to get a certificate; as far as I remember, none of the junior doctors working in the homeopathic hospital did that either. We were expected to learn on the job, and so we did.
Our teachers at medical school had hardly ever mentioned homeopathy, but one thing they had nevertheless made abundantly clear to us: homeopathy cannot possibly work; there is nothing in these pills and potions! To my surprise, however, my patients improved, their symptoms subsided and, in general, they were very happy with the treatment we provided. My professors had told me that homeopathy was rubbish, but they had forgotten to teach me a much more important lesson: critical thinking. Therefore, I might be forgiven for proudly assuming that my patients’ improvement was due to my skilful homeopathic prescriptions.
But then came another surprise: the boss of the homeopathic hospital, Dr Zimmermann, took me under his wings, and we had occasional discussions about this and that and, of course, about homeopathy. When I shyly mentioned what I had been told at medical school ( about homeopathy being entirely implausible), he agreed! I was speechless. Crucially, he considered that there were other explanations: “Our patients might improve because we look after them well and we discontinue all the unnecessary medication they come in with; perhaps the homeopathic remedies play only a small part”, he said.
THE INVESTIGATOR OF HOMEOPATHY
This may well have been the first time I started looking critically at homeopathy and my own clinical practice – and this is roughly where I left things as far as homeopathy is concerned until, in 1993, it became my job to research alternative therapies systematically and rigorously. Meanwhile I had done a PhD and tried my best to learn the skills of critical analysis. As I began to investigate homeopathy scientifically, I found that my former boss had been right: patients do indeed improve because of a multitude of factors: placebo-effects, natural history of the disease, regression towards the mean, to mention just three of a multitude of phenomena. At the same time, he had not been entirely correct: homeopathic remedies are pure placebos; they do not play a ‘small part’ in patients’ improvement, they play no part in this process.
As I began to state this more and more clearly, all sorts of ad hominem attacks were hauled in my direction, and recently I was even fired from the editorial board of the journal ‘HOMEOPATHY’ because allegedly I “…smeared homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine…” I don’t mind any of that – but I do think that the truth about ‘my double-life as a homeopath’ should not be diluted like a homeopathic remedy until it suits those who think they can defame me by claiming I am a liar and do not know what I am talking about.
This rather depressing story shows, I think, that some homeopaths, rather than admitting they are in the wrong, are prepared to dilute the truth until it might be hard for third parties to tell who is right and who is wrong. But however they may deny it, the truth is still the truth: I have been trained as a homeopath.
It is time, I think, to call an end to this series of articles on ‘drowning in a sea of misinformation’. Not that I have covered every contributor to and aspect of it. On the contrary, I could have carried on for another couple of weeks writing a post every day as I did during the last 15 days. But it was getting a bit boring – at least for me. So, for the last post, I have decided to briefly discuss politicians. In my view, they are crucially important in this context, as they create the general atmosphere and framework in which all the other mis-informers can thrive.
Peter Hain (Labour) is a campaigner for homeopathy and wants to see it widely used on the NHS. He was quoted as saying: “I first came to know about homeopathy through my son who as a baby suffered from eczema. He had it a couple of years but with conventional treatment the eczema was getting progressively worse and at the age of four he also developed asthma. We turned to homeopathy out of desperation and were stunned with the positive results. Since then I have used homeopathy for a wide variety of illnesses, but I rely on arnica as it’s excellent for treating the everyday bruises and shocks to the system we face. My view is that homeopathy and conventional medicines must remain side by side under the NHS to offer the best to patients”
Politicians who put anecdote before evidence do worry me quite a bit, I have to admit; by doing this, they provide us with strong evidence that they would be wise to keep their mouth shut when it comes to matters of science and medicine. But Hain is in good company: Jeremy Hunt (conservative), the current Secretary for Health, signed the following Early Day Motion in 2007: That this House welcomes the positive contribution made to the health of the nation by the NHS homeopathic hospitals; notes that some six million people use complementary treatments each year; believes that complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients, including chronic difficult to treat conditions such as musculoskeletal and other chronic pain, eczema, depression, anxiety and insomnia, allergy, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome; expresses concern that NHS cuts are threatening the future of these hospitals; and calls on the Government actively to support these valuable national assets.
The wording here is remarkable, I think: “…believes that complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients…” What is this supposed to mean? Health politics based on believe??? What it, in fact, implies is that there is merely belief but no evidence. Bravo! This looks like an own-goal to me.
And there are many, many more politicians who seem to prefer belief over evidence – not just in the UK but in virtually every country; our US friends would probably want me to mention Senator Tom Harkin who is responsible for spending billions of tax-payers’ dollars on researching implausible concepts with flawed studies. To make things worse, it is not just individual politicians who promote woo, as far as I can see, most political parties have a group of members promoting pseudo-science.
But why? Why do so many politicians misinform their voters about the values of unproven and disproven treatments? And I do not mean those members of parliament who nobody seems to be able to take seriously, like David Tredenick; I mean otherwise respectable politicians with real influence. Should they not be the first to insist on reliable evidence? Do they not have a mandate and an ethical/moral obligation to do so?
Call me cynical, but I have come to the conclusion that the answer is actually quite simple. Politicians need to be (re-)elected, and therefore they have to run with whatever subject is popular – and, like it or not, alternative medicine is popular. Politicians rarely take a reasonably long view on health care (in fact, very few understand the first thing about science or medicine); their perspective has exactly the same length as the current legislative period. They usually do not even attach much importance to alternative medicine; after all, it only amounts to a tiny fraction of the total health care budget.
Tony Blair (Labour) is as good an example as any other politician; in relation to homeopathy, he is quoted saying: I think that most people today have a rational view about science and my advice to the scientific community would be fight the battles you need to fight. I wouldn’t bother fighting a great battle over homeopathy – there are people who use it, people who don’t use it, it is not going to determine the future of the world, frankly. What will determine the future of the world however, is the scientific community explaining for example the science of genetics and how it develops, or the issue to do with climate change and so on.
Sounds reasonable? Almost, but not quite. Firstly, if people employ homeopathy to protect themselves from infectious diseases like malaria, typhus, TB, AIDS etc., or if people believe those charlatans who promote it as an effective cure for life-threatening conditions, we do have a serious public health issue at hand. Secondly, why should the vast majority of health care professionals bend over backwards to do their very best implementing the concepts of EBM, if homeopathy is being given a free ride to continue existing in a virtual universe of belief-based medicine? Thirdly, how on earth can scientists possibly explain “the science of genetics and how it develops, or the issue to do with climate change”, if they lack the skill, courage, power or honesty to adequately respond to harmful quackery masquerading as medicine?
It is not difficult to criticise politicians but what might be the way forward and out of this mess? Because of the central role they play in all this, I think that it would be important that those politicians who take up posts in science-based areas be adequately educated and trained in science. I know this may sound naïve, but I think it would be an essential step towards avoiding politicians regularly making fools of themselves, misinforming the public and misguiding important decisions which might affect all of us.
I have said it so often that I hesitate to state it again: an uncritical researcher is a contradiction in terms. This begs the question as to how critical the researchers of alternative medicine truly are. In my experience, most tend to be uncritical in the extreme. But how would one go about providing evidence for this view? In a previous blog-post, I have suggested a fairly simple method: to calculate an index of negative conclusions drawn in the articles published by a specific researcher. This is what I wrote:
If we calculated the percentage of a researcher’s papers arriving at positive conclusions and divided this by the percentage of his papers drawing negative conclusions, we might have a useful measure. A realistic example might be the case of a clinical researcher who has published a total of 100 original articles. If 50% had positive and 50% negative conclusions about the efficacy of the therapy tested, his trustworthiness index (TI) would be 1.
Depending on what area of clinical medicine this person is working in, 1 might be a figure that is just about acceptable in terms of the trustworthiness of the author. If the TI goes beyond 1, we might get concerned; if it reaches 4 or more, we should get worried.
An example would be a researcher who has published 100 papers of which 80 are positive and 20 arrive at negative conclusions. His TI would consequently amount to 4. Most of us equipped with a healthy scepticism would consider this figure highly suspect.
So how would alternative medicine researchers do, if we applied this method for assessing their trustworthiness? Very poorly, I fear – but that is speculation! Let’s see some data. Let’s look at one prominent alternative medicine researcher and see. As an example, I have chosen Professor George Lewith (because his name is unique which avoids confusion with researchers), did a quick Medline search to identify the abstracts of his articles on alternative medicine, and extracted the crucial sentence from the conclusions of the most recent ones:
- The study design of registered TCM trials has improved in estimating sample size, use of blinding and placebos
- Real treatment was significantly different from sham demonstrating a moderate specific effect of PKP
- These findings highlight the importance of helping patients develop coherent illness representations about their LBP before trying to engage them in treatment-decisions, uptake, or adherence
- Existing theories of how context influences health outcomes could be expanded to better reflect the psychological components identified here, such as hope, desire, optimism and open-mindedness
- …mainstream science has moved on from the intellectual sterility and ad hominem attacks that characterise the sceptics’ movement
- Trustworthy and appropriate information about practitioners (e.g. from professional regulatory bodies) could empower patients to make confident choices when seeking individual complementary practitioners to consult
- Comparative effectiveness research is an emerging field and its development and impact must be reflected in future research strategies within complementary and integrative medicine
- The I-CAM-Q has low face validity and low acceptability, and is likely to produce biased estimates of CAM use if applied in England, Romania, Italy, The Netherlands or Spain
- Our main finding was of beta power decreases in primary somatosensory cortex and SFG, which opens up a line of future investigation regarding whether this contributes toward an underlying mechanism of acupuncture.
- …physiotherapy was appraised more negatively in the National Health Service than the private sector but osteopathy was appraised similarly within both health-care sectors
This is a bit tedious, I agree, so I stop after just 10 articles. But even this short list does clearly indicate the absence of negative conclusions. In fact, I see none at all – arguably a few neutral ones, but nothing negative. All is positive in the realm of alternative medicine research then? In case you don’t agree with that assumption, you might prefer to postulate that this particular alternative medicine researcher somehow avoids negative conclusions. And if you believe that, you are not far from considering that we are being misinformed.
Alternative medicine is not really a field where one might reasonably expect that rigorous research generates nothing but positive results; even to expect 50 or 40% of such findings would be quite optimistic. It follows, I think, that if researchers only find positives, something must be amiss. I have recently demonstrated that the most active research homeopathic group (Professor Witt from the Charite in Berlin) has published nothing but positive findings; even if the results were not quite positive, they managed to formulate a positive conclusion. Does anyone doubt that this amounts to misinformation?
So, I do have produced at least some tentative evidence for my suspicion that some alternative medicine researchers misinform us. But how precisely do they do it? I can think of several methods for avoiding publishing a negative result or conclusion, and I fear that all of them are popular with alternative medicine researchers:
- design the study in such a way that it cannot possibly give a negative result
- manipulate the data
- be inventive when it comes to statistics
- home in on to the one positive aspect your generally negative data might show
- do not write up your study; like this nobody will ever see your negative results
And why do they do it? My impression is that they use science not for testing their interventions but for proving them. Critical thinking is a skill that alternative medicine researchers do not seem to cultivate. Often they manage to hide this fact quite cleverly and for good reasons: no respectable funding body would give money for such an abuse of science! Nevertheless, the end-result is plain to see: no negative conclusions are being published!
There are at least two further implications of the fact that alternative medicine researchers misinform the public. The first concerns the academic centres in which these researchers are organised. If a prestigious university accommodates a research unit of alternative medicine, it gives considerable credence to alternative medicine itself. If the research that comes out of the unit is promotional pseudo-science, the result, in my view, amounts to misleading the public about the value of alternative medicine.
The second implication relates to the journals in which researchers of alternative medicine prefer to publish their articles. Today, there are several hundred journals specialised in alternative medicine. We have shown over and over again that these journals publish next to nothing in terms of negative results. In my view, this too amounts to systematic misinformation.
My conclusion from all this is depressing: the type of research that currently dominates alternative medicine is, in fact, pseudo-research aimed not at rigorously falsifying hypotheses but at promoting bogus treatments. In other words alternative medicine researchers crucially contribute to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in this area.
If my health insurance pays for this treatment, it must be scientifically tested and proven. The ‘appeal to authority’ is powerful indeed, and I imagine that many consumers fall for this argument. But it is a fallacy! Health insurances are misinforming us for commercial benefit.
In 2007, I published an analysis of German health insurance companies’ policies regarding bogus treatments (MMW 2006, 149: 55-56 [the paper is in German and unfortunately not Medline-listed]). For this purpose, I had selected three popular alternative modalities: Bach flower remedies, Schuessler salts, and kinesiology all of which are, of course, not supported by sound evidence nor by biological plausibility. What emerged from this evaluation was shocking: of the 13 companies analysed, 9 paid for Bach flower remedies, 7 for kinesiology and 9 for Schuessler salts.
If you now think ‘ah yes, those Germans are obsessed with alternative medicine’, think again. The situation in most other countries is not much better; health insurances go for alternative medicine as though there is no tomorrow. A review from the US concluded that the number of people using CAM insurance benefits was substantial; the effect on insurance expenditures was modest. Because the long-term trajectory of CAM cost under third-party payment is unknown, utilization of these services should be followed. And apparently this is by no means confined to human health; recently someone tweeted that he had a very hard time finding a pet-insurance which did not offer to cover woo.
A few years after the above-mentioned publication, I was invited to speak at an international meeting of health insurers. I told the delegates in no uncertain terms that most of what they were offering to their clients in terms of alternative medicine was either unproven or disproven. There was stunned silence during the official discussion period, and I asked myself whether I had impolitely embarrassed my hosts. Then came the tea break, and one high-level representative of an insurance company after the other came to me to chat. Essentially, they all said: “We are well aware of the facts and the evidence you reviewed in your lecture; most of these treatments are useless, of course. But we have to offer them to our customers because we need to be competitive.”
In other words, health insurers, who normally are keen to keep their costs down, do not mind to pay for treatments which they know are ineffective simply because they use it as some sort of an advertising gimmick. In doing so they say or imply that these treatments do work. I think this is not just wrong and short-sighted, it is unethical and it significantly contributes to the ‘sea of misinformation’.
It almost goes without saying that alternative practitioners contribute importantly to the ‘sea of misinformation’ about alternative medicine. Again, I could write books about this subject but have to refrain myself and therefore will merely put quick spotlights on several types of practitioners, mostly drawing from my own research on these subjects.
A survey of more than 9000 patients of U.K. non-medically trained acupuncturists showed that a considerable number had received advice from their therapists about prescribed medicines. Since these acupuncturists hold no medical qualifications, they are not qualified to issue such advice. It is therefore clear to me that the advice given is likely to be misleading. In 2000, we directly asked the U.K. acupuncturists’ advice about electro-acupuncture treatment for smoking cessation, a treatment which we previously had identified to be ineffective. The advice we received was frequently not based on current best evidence and some of it also raised serious safety concerns (Schmidt, K., & Ernst, E. Internet advice by acupuncturists—a risk factor for cardiovascular patients? Perfusion,2002, 15: 44-50. Article not Medline-listed).
Many chiropractors from the UK and other countries make unsustainable therapeutic claims on their websites. In 2002, at the height of the ‘‘MMR scare’’ in Britain, we conducted a study revealing that a sizable proportion of U.K. chiropractors advised mothers against having the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) jab for their children. A survey of the U.K. chiropractors demonstrated that an alarming percentage of the U.K. chiropractors fail to provide advice about the risks of spinal manipulation before commencing treatment. As these risks are, in fact, considerable, this behaviour amounts to misinformation and is an obvious violation of medical ethics.
With osteopaths, it is a very similar story; the main difference is that there are far less investigations than for chiropractors. This may be due to the fact that, in the US, osteopaths are not alternative but conventional clinicians with much the same training and skills as proper doctors. But in Europe, they are strictly alternative and make as many bogus claims as chiropractors. Systematic investigations are rare, but I only need to remind us of my recent blog-post where I pointed out that:
Most osteopaths treat children for a wide range of conditions and claim that their interventions are helpful. They believe that children are prone to structural problems which can be corrected by their interventions. Here is an example from just one of the numerous promotional websites on this topic:
STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS, such as those affecting the proper mobility and function of the body’s framework, can lead to a range of problems. These may include:
- Postural – such as scoliosis
- Respiratory – such as asthma
- Manifestations of brain injury – such as cerebral palsy and spasticity
- Developmental – with delayed physical or intellectual progress, perhaps triggering learning behaviour difficulties
- Infections – such as ear and throat infections or urinary disturbances, which may be recurrent.
OSTEOPATHY can assist in the prevention of health problems, helping children to make a smooth transition into normal, healthy adult life.
Encouraging evidence exists for some specific herbs in the treatment of some specific conditions. Yet, virtually no good evidence exists to suggest that the prescriptions of individualized herbal mixtures by traditional herbalists across the globe generate more good than harm. Despite this lack of evidence, herbalists do not seem to offer this information voluntarily to his or her patients. When we directly asked the UK herbalists for advice on a clinical case, we found that it was ‘‘misleading at best and dangerous at worst’’ . In other words, herbalists misinform their patients and the public about the value of their treatments.
Many non-medically trained homeopaths advise their clients against the immunization of children. Instead, these practitioners often recommend using ‘‘homeopathic vaccinations’’ for which no good evidence exists. For instance, the vice-chair of the board of directors of ‘‘The Society of Homeopaths’’ had a site with the following statements: ‘‘Homeopathic alternatives to children’s immunisation are now available.’’ ‘‘Our clinic offers alternative immunisation programmes for the whole family.’’ Such statements amounts to misinformation which puts children’s health at risk.
Other alternative practitioners
I have chosen the above-listed professions almost at random and could have selected any other type as well. Arguably, all alternative practitioners who employ unproven treatments – and that must be the vast majority – misinform their patients to some extend. The only way to avoid this is to say: ‘look, I am going to give you a therapy for which there is no good evidence – I hope you don’t mind’. If they did that, they would be out of business in a flash. It follows, I think, that being in business is tantamount to misleading patients.
And there is, of course, another way of misinforming patients which is often forgotten yet very important: withholding essential information. In all of health care, informed consent is a ‘sine qua non’. Alternative practitioners very rarely obtain informed consent from their patients. The reason seems obvious (see above). I would argue that not informing people when they should be informed is a form of misinformation.
In this context, it is worth mentioning an investigation we did in 2009: We obtained the ethical codes of the following bodies: Association of Naturopathic Practitioners, Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (UK), Ayurvedic Practitioners Association, British Acupuncture Council, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council, European Herbal Practitioners Association, General Chiropractic Council, General Osteopathic Council, General Regulatory Council for Complementary Therapies, National Institute of Medical Herbalists, Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, Society of Homeopaths, UK Healers, Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners. We then extracted the statements from these codes referring to evidence-based practice (EBP). The results showed that only the General Chiropractic Council, the General Osteopathic Council and the General Regulatory Council for Complementary Therapies oblige their members to adopt EBP.
It seems that misinformation is an alternative practitioner’s daily bread. Without it, alternative therapists would need to confine their practice to the few treatments/conditions for which the evidence is positive. If they ever followed this strategy, they would hardly be able to earn a living.
To include conventional health care professionals amongst those who significantly contribute to the ‘sea of misinformation’ on alternative medicine might come as a surprise. But sadly, they do deserve quite a prominent place in the list of contributors. In fact, I could write one entire book about each of the various professions’ ways to mislead patients about alternative medicine.
There are, of course, considerable national differences and other peculiarities which render each specific profession quite complex to evaluate. The material is huge – far to big to fit in a short comment. All I will therefore try to do with this post is to throw a quick spotlight on some of the mainstream professions mentioning just one or two relevant aspects in each instant.
Particularly in North America, many nurses seem to be besotted with ‘Therapeutic Touch’, an implausible and unproven ‘energy-therapy’. For instance, the College of Nurses of Ontario includes Therapeutic Touch as a therapy permitted for its members. In other regions, other alternative treatments might be more popular with nurses but, in general, many seem to have a weakness for this sector. Researchers from Aberdeen recently conducted a survey to establish the use of alternative medicine by registered nurses, as well as their knowledge-base and attitudes towards it. They sent a questionnaire to 621 nurses and achieved a remarkable response rate of 86%. Eighty per cent of the responders admitted to employ alternative medicine and 41% were using it currently. Only five nurses believed that alternative medicine was not effective and 74% would recommend it to others. In other words, there is a strong likelihood of patients being misinformed by nurses.
A recent article in the UK journal THE PRACTISING MIDWIFE (Sept 2013) by Valerie Smith (not Medline-listed) claimed that the Royal College of Midwives supports the use of homeopathic remedies during childbirth. This does come to no surprise to those who know that several surveys have suggested that midwives are particularly fond of un- or dis-proven therapies and that they employ them often without the knowledge of obstetricians. We investigated this question by conducting a systematic review of all surveys of alternative medicine use by midwives. In total,19 surveys met our inclusion criteria. Most were recent and many originated from the US. Prevalence data varied but were usually high, often close to 100%. Much of this practice was not supported by sound evidence for efficacy and some of the treatments employed had the potential to put patients at risk. It seems obvious that, in order to employ unproven treatment, midwives first need to misinform their patients.
Some physiotherapists promote and practise a range of unproven treatments, e.g. craniosacral therapy. I am not aware of statistics on this, but it is not difficult to find evidence on the Internet: One website boldly states that Physiotherapy & Craniosacral Therapy available with Charetred Physiotherapist with 20 years of experience in the NHS. Another one proudly announces: Our main methods of treatment are through Physiotherapy and Craniosacral Therapy. A third site claims that Craniosacral Therapy is attracting increasing interest for its gentle yet effective approach, working directly with the body’s natural capacity for self-repair to treat a wide range of conditions. And a final example: Catherine is a registered Cranio-Sacral Therapist, a Physiotherapist, and is a tutor at the London College of Cranio-Sacral Therapy. She is also qualified in acupuncture for pain relief and a member of the Craniosacral Therapy Association, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and Acupuncture Association for Chartered Physiotherapists.
If you go into any pharmacy in the UK, you do not need to search for long to find shelves full of homeopathic remedies, Bach flower remedies, aromatherapy-oils or useless herbal slimming aids, to mention just 4 of the many different bogus treatments on offer. If you do the same in Germany, France, Switzerland or other countries, the amount of bogus remedies and devices for sale might even be greater. Pharmacists, it seems to me, have long settled to be shopkeepers who have few scruples misleading their customers into believing that these useless products are worth buying. Their code of ethics invariably forbids them such promotion and trade, but most pharmacists seem to pay no or very little attention. The concern for profit has clearly won over the concern for customers or patients.
I have left my own profession for last – not because they are the least contributors to the ‘sea of misinformation, but because, in some respects, they are the most important ones. The general attitude amongst doctors today seems to be ‘I don’t care how it works, as long as it helps my patients’. I have dedicated a previous post on explaining that this is misleading nonsense; therefore there is no reason to not repeat myself. Instead, I might just mention how many doctors practice homeopathy thus misleading patients into believing that it is an effective therapy. Alternatively, I could refer to those charlatans with a medical degree who promote bogus cancer cures. In my view, misinformation by doctors is the most serious form of misinformation of them all: physicians involved in such activities violate their ethical code and betray patients who frequently trust doctors almost blindly.
It would be a misunderstanding to assume that, with this post, I am accusing all conventional health care professionals of misinforming us about alternative medicine. But some clearly do; and when they do abuse their positions of trust in this way, they do a serious disservice to us all. I hope that exposing this problem will contribute to conventional health care professionals behaving more responsibly in future.
A total of 256 newspaper articles were evaluated. We identified 80 articles in the German papers and 176 in the British; thus, the British reported on medical topics more than twice as often as German broadsheets. Articles in German papers were on average considerably longer and took a positive attitude more often than British ones. We identified 4 articles on alternative medicine in the German and 26 in the UK newspapers. The tone of the UK articles was unanimously positive (100%) whereas most 75% of the German articles on alternative medicine were critical.
This analysis, we concluded, suggested that, compared with German newspapers, British newspapers report more frequently on medical matters and generally have a more critical attitude. The proportion of articles on alternative medicine seems to be considerably larger in the UK (15% v 5%), and, in contrast to articles on medical matters in general, reporting on alternative medicine in the UK was overwhelmingly positive.
That was 13 years ago, and things may well have changed since then. My impression is that more critical coverage of alternative medicine has finally and thankfully begun to emerge. But, even if this is true, we still cannot be sure how misleading it is. In 2006, we therefore conducted another investigation aimed at assessing UK newspapers’ coverage of alternative medicine, this time specifically for cancer.
We searched the “Lexis Nexis” database for 3-month periods in 2002, 2003 and 2004 to retrieve all relevant articles. A total of 310 articles were thus found: 117 came from national and 193 originated from local newspapers. The UK press showed an increasing interest towards alternative medicine for cancer (in 2002, 81 articles; in 2003, 82 articles and in 2004, 147 articles). The most frequently mentioned alternative therapies were diets and supplements (17.7%). Articles mainly focused on alternative medicine as possible cancer treatments (44.8%), and 53.4% of all treatments mentioned were not backed up by evidence. The tone of the articles was generally positive towards alternative medicine. Promotional articles increased over the years, especially for cancer centres and clinics.
Our conclusion: UK national newspapers frequently publish articles on alternative medicine for cancer. Much of this information seems to be uncritical with a potential for misleading patients.
There is no doubt that, in recent months, some journalists have produced excellent articles on alternative medicine. Let me use this occasion to congratulate them for this achievement. Yet, at the same time, it is indisputably true that misleading journalism continues to cause harm on a daily basis. Vulnerable people are thus led to make wrong therapeutic decisions; in some cases, this will only cost money, in other instances, it may well cost lives. Today, I would therefore formulate a much more constructive conclusion: it is time, I think that, when writing about health and medicine, journalists constantly remind themselves that they have a responsibility towards public health and stop giving bogus treatments a free ride.
And finally, to make this more fun, I invite you the reader of this post to report the most misleading newspaper article about alternative medicine you have come across (and, if possible provide a link to it). I will try to be a shining example and start with my choice: I’ve seen herbal remedy make tumours disappear, says respected cancer doctor (THE DAILY TELEGRAPH 20 SEPT 2004) The sub-headline that followed was: Since I have been putting people on Carctol I have seen miracles. Carctol, it turns out, once we do some research, is a herbal mixture heavily promoted as an alternative cancer cure, which is not supported by any reliable evidence at all. I do wonder how many lives have been shortened by this article!