For ‘my’ journal FACT, I review all the new articles that have emerged on the subject of alternative medicine on a monthly basis. Here are a few impressions and concerns that this activity have generated:
- The number of papers on alternative medicine has increased beyond belief: between the year 2000 and 2010, there was a slow, linear increase from 335 to 610 Medline-listed articles; thereafter, the numbers exploded to 1189 (2011), 1674 (2012) and 2236 (2013).
- This fast growing and highly lucrative ‘market’ has been cornered mainly by one journal: ‘EVIDENCE BASED COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE’ (EBCAM), a journal that I mentioned several times before (see here, for instance). In 2010, EBCAM published 76 papers, while these figures increased to 546, 880 and 1327 during the following three years.
- Undeniably, this is big business, as authors have to pay tidy sums each time they get published in EBCAM.
- The peer-review system of EBCAM is farcical: potential authors who send their submissions to EBCAM are invited to suggest their preferred reviewers who subsequently are almost invariably appointed to do the job. It goes without saying that such a system is prone to all sorts of serious failures; in fact, this is not peer-review at all, in my opinion, it is an unethical sham.
- As a result, most (I estimate around 80%) of the articles that currently get published on alternative medicine are useless rubbish. They tend to be either pre-clinical investigations which never get followed up and are thus meaningless, or surveys of no relevance whatsoever, or pilot studies that never are succeeded by more definitive trials, or non-systematic reviews that are wide open to bias and can only mislead the reader.
- Nowadays, very few articles on alternative medicine are good enough to get published in mainstream journals of high standing.
The consequences of these fairly recent developments are serious:
- Conventional scientists and clinicians must get the impression that there is little research activity in alternative medicine (while, in fact, there is lots) and that the little research that does emerge is of poor quality.
- Consequently alternative medicine will be deemed by those who are not directly involved in it as trivial, and the alternative medicine journals will be ignored or even become their laughing stock.
- At the same time, the field of alternative medicine and its proponents (the only ones who might actually be reading the plethora of rubbish published in alternative medicine journals) will get more and more convinced that their field is supported by an ever- abundance of peer-reviewed, robust science.
- Gradually, they will become less and less aware of the standards and requirements that need to be met for evidence to be called reliable (provided they ever had such knowledge in the first place).
- They might thus get increasingly frustrated by the lack of acceptance of their ‘advances’ by proper scientists – an attitude which, from their perspective, must seem unfair, biased and hostile.
- In the end, conventional and alternative medicine, rather than learning from each other, will move further and further apart.
- Substantial amounts of money will continue to be wasted for research into alternative medicine that, whenever assessed critically, turns out to be too poor to advance healthcare in any meaningful way.
- The ones who medicine should be all about, namely the patients who need our help and rely on the progress of research, are not well served by these developments.
In essence this suggests, I think, that alternative medicine is ill-advised and short-sighted to settle for standards that are so clearly below those generally deemed acceptable in medicine. Similarly, conventional medicine does a serious disfavour to progress and to us all, if it ignores or tolerates this process.
I am not at all sure how to reverse this trend. In the long-term, it would require a change of attitude that obviously is far from easy to bring about. In the short-term, it might help, I think, to de-list journals from Medline that are in such obvious conflict with publication ethics.
A new RCT of Reiki healing has been published by US authors from the following institutions: Union Institute & University, Psychology Program, Brattleboro, VT, Coyote Institute, Augusta and Bangor, ME, Eastern Maine Medical Center and Acadia Hospital, Bangor, ME, University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, Biddeford, ME, Coyote Institute, Orono, ME. The purpose of this study was to determine if 30 minutes of healing touch could reduce burnout in community mental health clinicians.
The authors utilized a crossover design to explore the efficacy of Reiki versus sham Reiki, a pseudo treatment performed by volunteers who had no experience with Reiki and pretended to be healers vis-à-vis the patients. This sham control intervention was designed to mimic true Reiki.
Subjects were randomized to whether they started with Reiki or sham. The Maslach Burnout Inventory-Human Services Survey (MBI-HSS) and the Measure Your Medical Outcome Profile Version 2 (MYMOP-2) were used as outcome measures. Multilevel modeling was used to represent the relations among variables.
The results showed that real Reiki was significantly better than sham Reiki in reducing burnout among community mental health clinicians. Reiki was significant in reducing depersonalization, but only among single people. Reiki reduced the primary symptom on the MYMOP also only among single people.
The authors concluded that the effects of Reiki were differentiated from sham Reiki. Reiki could be helpful in community mental health settings for the mental health of the practitioners.
My team has published on Reiki (see here and here, for instance), and on this blog I have repeatedly been expressed my doubts that Reiki is more than an elaborate placebo (see here and here, for instance). Do these new results mean that I need to eat my words and henceforth praise the wonders of Reiki? No, I don’t think so!
Having conducted studies on ‘energy healing’ myself, I know only too well of the many pitfalls and possibilities of generating false-positive findings with such research. This new study has many flaws, but we need not look far to find the reason for the surprising and implausible finding. Here is my explanation why this study suggests one placebo to be superior to another placebo.
The researchers had to recruit 16 Reiki healers and several non-Reiki volunteers to perform the interventions on the small group of patients. It goes without saying that the Reiki healers were highly motivated to demonstrate the value of their therapy. This means they (unintentionally?) used verbal and non-verbal communication to maximise the placebo effect of their treatment. The sham healers, of course, lacked such motivation. In my view, this seemingly trivial difference alone is capable of producing the false-positive result above.
There are, of course, ways of minimising the danger of such confounding. In our own study of ‘energy healing’ with sham healers as controls, for instance, we instructed both the healers and the sham healers to abstain from all communication with their patients, we filmed each session to make sure, and we asked each patient to guess which treatment they had received. None of these safeguards were incorporated in the present study – I wonder why!
‘Doctor’ Don Harte is former medical student who prematurely left medical school and currently works as a chiropractor in California. He, has served on the Boards of the World Chiropractic Association and the Council on Chiropractic Practice. He has published extensively; on his website, he offers a list of his articles:
- July 16, 2015: “CA SB277: Marin Chiropractor Says Power Structure Bigoted Against Boy in Wheelchair, vs. Leukemia Boy”
- July 1, 2015: “SB277: Marin Chiropractor Charges California with Chemical Child Molestation”
- June 15, 2015: Press release: “Dr. Don Harte warns about the Failure of Big Pharma and Growing Opioid Addiction Crises”
- May, 2015: “The Biological, Economic and Political Case Against Vaccination” in North Bay Biz magazine
- May 15, 2015: “Dr. Don Harte Calls Draconian SB277 Vaccination Initiative Sacramento’s Syringe of Shame”
- April 21, 2015: “End of a Made-up Measles Crisis”
- February 12, 2015: “It’s a childhood disease, not a tragedy” Letter to the Editor in the Pacific Sun, about the measles hysteria.
- January 27, 2015: “California Straight Chiropractor Fights Disney Measles Mania”
- March 5, 2015: “You cannot have vaccination that works, yet doesn’t work” Letter to the Editor in the Pacific Sun. “The grotesque level of bigotry, backed up by the lack of any comprehension of immunology, toxicology and the vitalistic paradigm of Chiropractic, is astounding.”
- April, 2009: “Seize the Time” in The Chiropractic Journal. The future of Chiropractic, as Medicine is breaking down, and bankrupting the country.
- April, 2009: “Refusal to Vaccinate Puts Kids At Risk”Dr. Harte quoted, “Vaccination is based on the medical fallacy that our bodies are stupid.”
- Spring, 2008: “The Future of Chiropractic” Journal of the California Chiropractic Association. For chiropractors, my view on the future of Chiropractic.
- November, 2007: “Is There a Vaccine That Protects Against ‘Non-Science?’”Marin Independent Journal. Discussion of Guardisil, the HPV vaccine, the flu vaccine, and the general foolishness of vaccination, the lack of science and efficacy, etc.
- May, 2005: ”Generations of Unbridled Power” The Chiropractic Journal. In a publication for chiropractors, I am standing up against the harassment and debasement of the chiropractic profession, specifically by the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners.
- October, 2004: “Time for regime Change in Attitude about Medicine” San Francisco Chronicle. The very popular anti-inflammatory medication, Vioxx, was just pulled off the market, at the same time as a massive contamination of flu vaccine.
- January, 2004: “Alternative to the Sting of a Failed Flu Vaccine” San Francisco Chronicle. Discusses the absurdity and the dangers of the annual flu vaccine ritual. The heroic role of Chiropractic in the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918.
- May, 2003: “Where is the Danger in Chiropractic?” San Francisco Chronicle. Responding to another baseless attack upon Chiropractic by medical bigots, noting the extreme risks of Medicine, and the extreme safety of Chiropractic.
- January, 2002: “To X-Ray or Not to X-Ray” The Chiropractic Journal. An article to chiropractors about how essential X-ray is to the practice of Chiropractic. Sadly, very few chiropractors X-ray these days.
- May, 2000: “By Giving Our Kids Certain Drugs, We’re Playing Russian Roulette With Their Lives” Marin Independent Journal. Ritalin and anti-depressants for children, the Columbine massacre, the role of Chiropractic in children’s health.
- December, 1999: “It’s a Myth that Children Need Vaccines” Marin Independent Journal.
- July, 1999: “Too Little Drugs, Too Many Organs” Marin Independent Journal. Does the medical paradigm really make sense? Is it logical?.
- November, 1979: “Interferon and Beyond” OMNI Magazine “Forum,” (Response to a cover story, “Cancer Cure at a Billion Dollars a Pound.”
His website also reveals that Harte views chiropractic as a ‘cure all’ and believes that the “Vertebral Subluxation Complex (VSC) is THE most serious threat to your health and well-being.”
Harte is not impressed with conventional medicine: “Virtually everyone has lost loved ones to medical mistakes and indifference. I, myself, count my father, my favorite uncle and two cousins amongst this unnecessary medical death toll. Though people concoct all kinds of charges against Chiropractic, nobody knows of any deaths from Chiropractic, because there just aren’t any. You might want to read the article that I wrote on this subject in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Where is the Danger in Chiropractic.”
In particular, Harte is no friend of immunisation. Here are some of the things he has been quoted as saying recently about the subject:
- He charged the media with “an evil bigotry” in relation to vaccination.
- He said that “The mass media refuses to acknowledge the existence of vaccine-injured children. This is quite a trick, since we are talking millions of children.”
- He explained that “their whole con game relies on fear, trying to convince you that you and your children have nothing inside to protect them from all those evil germs. That you need their HOLY WATER, the vaccines, or you will die.” Once again, Harte charged the California Governor and the legislature “as Destroyers of the family, as Enemies of liberty, as CHEMICAL CHILD MOLESTERS.”
- He claimed that “His (Mr J Coleman’s) son, Otto, who was paralyzed by a vaccine reaction, was there, in his wheelchair; as were other vaccine-damaged children. Some participants held up photos of their children who had died from vaccines.” And he said, “There were no photos of these children, nor any mention of them in news accounts. Establishment media refuses to put a human face on the suffering caused by vaccinations. I don’t know whether to call them ‘chicken’ or ‘evil.’”
- Harte also stated that “The claim that non-vaccinated children are a threat to Rhett has ZERO scientific basis. First of all, less-vaccinated and non-vaccinated kids tend to be healthier. And more specifically, children recently vaccinated with live virus vaccines will shed viruses, and thus, be contagious, for up to 28 days.”
- “Here we have a case,” explained Harte, “of one boy held up as a potential victim of unvaccinated or less-vaccinated children, who has had, in reality, no harm done by those children. The millions of children who have endured great harm, up to and including paralysis and death, are ignored. This is not science, nor is it reputable news reporting nor reputable public policy. It is naked propaganda, paid for by Big Pharma.”
It seems that Harte is an altogether dangerous person.
Of course, chiropractors will (yet again) claim that Harte does in no way stand for chiropractic as a whole and that chiropractors are just as appalled by such dangerous anti-vaccination propaganda as we are. They will say he is just ‘a rotten apple’ within a mostly laudable profession.
But is that true? What have the professional bodies of chiropractic done against him and his hazardous views? Have they excluded or reprimanded him, or requested that he seeks treatment for what seems to be rampant paranoia?
The answer, I am afraid, is NO! What they did do instead was to name him, in 2006, as “Chiropractor of the Year” – an honour bestowed on him by the World Chiropractic Alliance.
NATURAL NEWS announced the death of Nicholas Gonzalez with the following words:
It is with great sadness that we report the death of health freedom advocate and individualized nutrition specialist Dr. Nick Gonzalez, who on the eve of July 21 died from an alleged heart attack. Dr. Gonzalez’ contributions to anticancer nutrition protocols and an array of other nutritional therapies have been invaluable, and we would like to honor this pioneering natural healer by recognizing his benevolent legacy…
In contrast to the conventional cancer treatment model, Dr. Gonzalez’s approach was always about helping individuals heal through individualized care. Along with fellow colleague Dr. Linda Isaacs, Dr. Gonzalez helped build a repository of dietary protocols to help patients overcome their specific conditions through advanced nutritional therapies. His methodology centered around detoxification, supplementation with healing foods and nutrients, and specialized enzyme therapy…
Dr. Gonzalez was always a strong adherent to sound science, and he was never in it for the money. His humble, cogent approach to helping people heal naturally without drugs or surgery is a legacy worth remembering and passing on, and we’re thankful to have gotten to know this honorable man during his time on this earth…
This sounds as though Gonzalez was some kind of medical genius and scientific pioneer. Most cancer experts would disagree very sharply with this. Here is what Louise Lubetkin wrote on this blog about him, and I very much encourage you to read her whole post.
Those who recognize and appreciate a fine example of pseudoscientific baloney when they see one know that there is no richer seam, no more inexhaustible source, than the bustling, huckster-infested street carnival that is alternative medicine. There one can find intellectual swindlers in abundance, all offering outrageously implausible claims with the utmost earnestness and sincerity. But the supreme prize, the Fabergé egg found buried among the bric-a-brac, surely belongs to that most convincing of illusionists, the physician reborn as an ardent advocate of alternative medicine…
So what are we to make of Gonzalez? Is he a cynical fraud or does he genuinely believe that coffee enemas, skin brushing and massive doses of supplements are capable of holding back the tsunami of cancer?
At the end of the day it hardly matters: either way, he’s a dangerous man.
Personally, I believe much more in the text of Louise Lubetkin. How about you?
The press officers of journals like to send out press-releases of articles which are deemed to be particularly good and important. Sadly, it is not often that articles on alternative medicine fulfil these criteria. I was therefore excited to receive this press-release which seemed encouraging, to say the least:
Medical evidence supports the potential for acupuncture to be significantly more effective in the treatment of dermatologic conditions such as dermatitis, pruritus, and urticaria than alternative treatment options, “placebo acupuncture,” or no treatment, according to a review of the medical literature published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a peer-reviewed publication from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers…
The abstract was equally promising:
Objectives: Acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine that has been used to treat a broad range of medical conditions, including dermatologic disorders. This systematic review aims to synthesize the evidence on the use of acupuncture as a primary treatment modality for dermatologic conditions.
Methods: A systematic search of MEDLINE, EMBASE, and the Cochrane Central Register was performed. Studies were limited to clinical trials, controlled studies, case reports, comparative studies, and systematic reviews published in the English language. Studies involving moxibustion, electroacupuncture, or blood-letting were excluded.
Results: Twenty-four studies met inclusion criteria. Among these, 16 were randomized controlled trials, 6 were prospective observational studies, and 2 were case reports. Acupuncture was used to treat atopic dermatitis, urticaria, pruritus, acne, chloasma, neurodermatitis, dermatitis herpetiformis, hyperhidrosis, human papillomavirus wart, breast inflammation, and facial elasticity. In 17 of 24 studies, acupuncture showed statistically significant improvements in outcome measurements compared with placebo acupuncture, alternative treatment options, and no intervention.
Conclusions: Acupuncture improves outcome measures in the treatment of dermatitis, chloasma, pruritus, urticaria, hyperhidrosis, and facial elasticity. Future studies should ideally be double-blinded and standardize the control intervention.
One has to read the actual full text article to understand that the evidence presented here is dodgy to the extreme. In fact, one has to go into the tedious details of the methods section to find the reasons why: All searches were limited to clinical trials, controlled studies, case reports, comparative studies, and systematic reviews published in the English language.
There are many more weaknesses of this review, but the inclusion of uncontrolled studies and even anecdotes is, in my view, a virtual death sentence to its credibility. It means that no general conclusions about the effectiveness of acupuncture, such as the authors have decided to make, are possible.
Such overt exaggerations are sadly no rarities in the realm of alternative medicine. I think, this begs a number of serious questions:
- Does this cross the line between flawed research and scientific misconduct?
- Why did the reviewers not pick up these flaws?
- Why did the editor pass this article for publication?
- How can the publisher tolerate such dubious behaviour?
- Should this journal (which I have commented on before here and which is one with the highest impact factor of all the alt med journals) be de-listed from Medline?
I don’t think that we will get answers from the people responsible for this disgrace, but I would like to learn my readers’ opinions.
This post is dedicated to all homeopathic character assassins.
Some ardent homeopathy fans have reminded me that, some 25 years ago, I published (OH, WHAT A SCANDAL!!!) a positive trial of homeopathy; I even found a website that proudly announces this fact. Homeopaths seem jubilant about this discovery (not because they now need to revise their allegations that I never did any trials; or the other, equally popular claim, that I have always been squarely against their trade but) because the implication is that even I have to concede that homeopathic remedies are better than placebo. In their view, this seems to beg the following important and embarrassing questions:
- Why did I change my mind?
- Am I not contradicting myself?
- Who has bribed me?
- Am I in the pocket of Big Pharma?
- Does this ‘skeleton in my closet’ discredit me for all times?
I remember the trial in question quite well. We conducted it during my time in Vienna, and I am proud of several innovative ideas that went into it. Here is the abstract in full:
The aim of this study was to test the effectiveness of a combined homeopathic medication in primary varicosity. A well-defined population of 61 patients was randomized into active medication (Poikiven®) or placebo. Both were given for 24 d. At the start of the trial, after 12 d medication and at the end of the study, objective and subjective parameters were recorded: venous filling time, leg volume, calf circumference, haemorheological measurements and patients’ symptoms such as cramps, itching, leg heaviness, pain during standing and the need to elevate the legs. The results show that venous filling time is changed by 44% towards normal in the actively-treated group. The average leg volume fell significantly more in this group, but calf circumferences did not change significantly and blood rheology was not altered in any relevant way. None of the patients reported side-effects. Subjective complaints were relieved significantly more by Poikiven than by placebo. These results suggest that the oral treatment of primary varicosity using Poikiven is feasible.
So, there we have it: a homeopathic remedy (as tested by me) is clearly better than placebo normalising important objective parameters as well as subjective symptoms of varicose veins. Is that not a contradiction of what I keep saying today, namely that homeopathy is a placebo therapy?
YES AND NO! (But much more NO than YES)
Yes, because that was clearly our result, and I never tried to deny it.
No, because our verum was far from being a homeopathic, highly diluted remedy. It contained Aesculus D1 12,5 ml, Arnica D1 2,5 ml, Carduus marianus D1 5 ml, Hamamelis D1 10 ml, Lachesis D6 5 ml, Lycopodium D4 5 ml, Melilotus officinalis D1 10 ml. Take just the first of these ingredients, Aesculus or horse chestnut. This is a herbal medicine that has been well documented (even via a Cochrane review) to be effective for the symptoms of varicose veins, and it contains Aesculus in the D1 potency. This means that it is diluted merely by a factor of 1:10. So, for all intents and purposes, our verum was herbal by nature, and there is no surprise at all that we found it to be effective.[Here is a little ‘aside': Aesculus is a proven treatment for varicose veins. Homeopathy must always rely on the ‘like cures like’ principle. Therefore, if Aesculus had been used in the homeopathic way, would it not, according to homeopathic dogma, had to worsen the symptoms of our patients rather than alleviating them?]
All of this would be trivial to the extreme, if it did not touch upon an important and confusing point which is often used as an ‘escape route’ by homeopaths when they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Some trials of homeopathy are positive because they use medications which are homeopathic only by name. This regularly creates considerable confusion. In the recent BMJ debate I tried to address this issue head on by stating at the outset: ” Nobody questions, of course, that some substances used in homeopathy, such as arsenic or strychnine, can be pharmacologically active, but homeopathic medicines are typically far too dilute to have any effect.”
And that’s the point: homeopathic remedies beyond a C12 potency contain nothing, less dilute ones contain little to very little, and D1 potencies are hardy diluted at all and thus contain substantial amounts of active ingredients. Such low potencies are rarely used by homeopaths and should be called PSEUDO-HOMEOPATHIC, in my view. Homeopaths tend to use this confusing complexity to wriggle out of difficult arguments, and often they rely on systematic reviews of homeopathic trials which can generate somewhat confusing overall findings because of such PSEUDO-HOMEOPATHIC remedies.
To make it perfectly clear: the typical homeopathic remedy is far too dilute to have any effect. When scientists or the public at large speak of homeopathic remedies, we don’t mean extracts of Aesculus or potent poisons like Arsenic D1 (has anyone heard of someone claiming to have killed rats with homeopathy?); we refer to the vast majority of remedies which are highly dilute and contain no or very few active molecules – even when we do not explain this somewhat complicated and rather tedious circumstance each and every time. I therefore declare once and for all that, unless I indicate otherwise, I do NOT mean potencies below C6 when I speak of a ‘homeopathic remedy’ (sorry homeopathy fans, perhaps I should have done this when I started this blog).
What if our Vienna study all those years ago had tested not the pseudo-homeopathic ‘Poikiven’ but a highly dilute, real homeopathic remedy and had still come up with a positive finding? Would that make me inconsistent, dishonest, untrustworthy or corrupt? Certainly not!
I have always urged people to not go by the results of single trials. There are numerous reasons why a single study can produce a misleading result. We should therefore, wherever possible, rely on systematic reviews that critically evaluate the totality of the evidence (I would always mistrust even my own trial data, if it contradicted the totality of the reliable evidence) – and such analyses clearly fail to show that homeopathy is more than a placebo.
And even, if none of this had happened, and I had just changed my mind about homeopathy because
- the evidence changed,
- I had become wiser,
- I had learnt how to think like a scientist,
- I had managed to see behind the smokescreen many homeopaths put up to hide the truth?
Would that discredit me? I don’t think so! As someone once said, being able to change one’s mind is a sign of intelligence.
I am sure that the weird world of homeopathic character assassination will soon find something else to discredit me – but for now…
I REST MY CASE.
Chiropractors are back pain specialists, they say. They do not pretend to treat non-spinal conditions, they claim.
If such notions were true, why are so many of them still misleading the public? Why do many chiropractors pretend to be primary care physicians who can take care of most illnesses regardless of any connection with the spine? Why do they continue to happily promote bogus treatments? Why do chiropractors, for instance, claim they can treat gastrointestinal diseases?
This recent narrative review of the literature, for example, was aimed at summarising studies describing the management of disorders of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract using ‘chiropractic therapy’ broadly defined here as spinal manipulation therapy, mobilizations, soft tissue therapy, modalities and stretches.
Twenty-one articles were found through searching the published literature to meet the authors’ inclusion criteria. The retrieved articles included case reports to clinical trials to review articles. The majority of articles chronicling patient experiences under chiropractic care reported that they experienced mild to moderate improvements in GI symptoms. No adverse effects were reported.
From this, the authors concluded that chiropractic care can be considered as an adjunctive therapy for patients with various GI conditions providing there are no co-morbidities.
I think, we would need to look for a long time to find an article with conclusions that are more ridiculous, false and unethical than these.
The old adage applies: rubbish in, rubbish out. If we include unreliable reports such as anecdotes, our finding will be unreliable as well. If we do not make this mistake and conduct a proper systematic review, we will arrive at very different conclusions. My own systematic review, for instance, of controlled clinical trials drew the following conclusion: There is no supportive evidence that chiropractic is an effective treatment for gastrointestinal disorders.
That probably says it all. I only want to add a short question: SHOULD THIS LATEST CHIROPRACTIC ATTEMPT TO MISLEAD THE PUBLIC BE CONSIDERED ‘SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT’ OR ‘FRAUD’?
The BMJ is my favourite medical journal by far; I think it is full of good science as well as entertaining to read, and I look forward to finding it in my letter box every Friday. It is thus hard for me to criticise the BMJ, and this is not made easier by the fact that I am the author of one of the two pieces in question. However, the current ‘HEAD TO HEAD’ entitled ‘SHOULD DOCTORS RECOMMEND HOMEOPATHY’ does, in my view, not mark the finest hour of this journal. Let me explain why.
The first question that arises is whether homeopathy is a good subject for such a debate. As several commentators have pointed out, it is not – the debate has long been closed; to serious scientists and many doctors, homeopathy tends to be a subject that is nothing more than an odd, obsolete triviality that does not even deserve a mention in the BMJ or any other serious publication. In a way, this notion has almost been proven wrong by the high level of interest the subject quickly generated. So, I will not dwell on this point any longer.
The second issue that arises just from nothing more than merely reading the title of the debate is that the question posed is imprecise. ‘Homeopathy’ is too broad a term for a focussed discussion; it includes amongst other phenomena empathetic encounters, remedies with material doses of highly active ingredients (e.g. Arsenic D1) and remedies that contain absolutely nothing at all (any ‘potency’ beyond C12). In my piece, I tried to make it clear that I speak mostly about ultra-molecular dilutions. This is less obvious in Peter Fisher’s article, and there is doubtlessly a lot of confusion in the debate as well as the comments that follow.
The two articles had to be written without either author knowing the text of the other. Consequently the issues raised by one author were not necessarily addressed by the other. This is somewhat frustrating, as it fails to clarify issues that could easily have been dealt with. In a previous post, I have already explained that the peer-review process of the two articles was seriously flawed. It failed to correct the many misleading statements in Fisher’s piece, as Alan Henness has pointed out in his response both in the BMJ and on this blog. In fact, reading Fisher’s article, I fail to find a single passage that is not factually wrong or highly misleading (the accompanying podcast is even worse, in my view). To me it is obvious that the debate about homeopathy cannot advance, if one side continues to behave in this fashion.
Homeopaths are very adept at recruiting ‘grass roots’ for public relation activities. We know this from various previous experiences. It was therefore predictable that this would swiftly get organised also in this instance. I happen to know from more than one source that there was a highly active campaign by homeopaths trying to persuade their supporters to post responses on the BMJ site and to vote on the BMJ straw poll (scientists, by contrast, know that such polls are silly gadgets and tend to view homeopathy as a triviality that is not worth the effort). In this way, they try to generate the impression that the majority of the public stands firmly behind homeopathy and want doctors to recommend it. It does not need too much to realise that popularity is not a measure of efficacy. Homeopaths, however, tend to relish logical fallacies and therefore will rejoice at such nonsense and celebrate it as their very own victory.
So, was this ‘HEAD TO HEAD’ a mistake? Should I have refused to participate? With hindsight, perhaps. My main reason for accepting was that, had I declined the offer, someone else would have written the piece (there are plenty of excellent scientists who could do an excellent job at this). As sure as hell, that person would subsequently gotten attacked for not ever having researched and/or practiced homeopathy (in the podcast, Fisher even tried to undermine my authority by pointing out that 1) I have not worked as a clinician for decades and 2) I have no NHS contract). I think I may be one of the few critics of homeopathy who cannot possibly be accused of not knowing enough about homeopathy to discuss the subject.
My hope is that, because the BMJ is such an excellent journal, the two articles will survive the current hoo-hah and some people will read them carefully, look up and study the references, analyse all this critically and weigh the arguments responsibly. Then they must be able to discern the fiction from the facts. And in this case, perhaps it was worth it after all.
The ‘Homeopathy Action Trust’ (HAT) is a charity that claims to encourage and support public understanding of homeopathy. They believe that homeopathy is invaluable to many people and plays an important role in maintaining their health and wellbeing. The HAT advocates that patients have a right to choose homeopathic treatments and access to it on the NHS or privately. Many of HAT’s projects are about promoting to use of homeopathy in Africa, for instance, where they advocate homeopathy as a treatment for all sorts of serious diseases.
Recently HAT embarked on another project: a campaign against the current Wiki-page on homeopathy which HAT believes to be biased against homeopathy. Thus they issued a ‘position statement’ on their website. Here is a short paragraph from that statement which I find worthy of a comment (the numbers were inserted by me and refer to my comments below; otherwise the text in bold is by HAT):
We acknowledge that the scientific evidence in support of Homeopathy remains inconclusive (1), but it is by no means definitively negative (2) and there is in fact an active and growing field of research worldwide (3). We acknowledge that the mechanism of action of homeopathic remedies is unknown (4) – as it is for some conventional medicines – but this does not preclude their usage in clinical situations (5). We welcome honest and open-minded debate (6) about Homeopathy and fully support the call for high quality (7), appropriately designed research studies (8) into the effectiveness of homeopathy as it is practised by both medical and professional homeopaths (9).
- The evidence is not ‘inconclusive’ but the most reliable evidence fails to convincingly show efficacy (see here, for instance).
- In healthcare, we do not focus on the question whether the evidence for anything is ‘definitely negative’, but we base our decisions on the question whether or not the evidence is positive. In other words, we use those treatments that are backed up with positive evidence and not those where this is in serious doubt.
- The research activity in homeopathy has been in decline for some time; this can easily be verified by searching Medline.
- No, we know that there cannot be a mechanism of action that is in line with the laws of nature.
- If such therapies are used in conventional healthcare, it is because they are (contrary to homeopathy) supported by sufficiently strong clinical evidence.
- So far, this ‘position statement’ is neither honest nor open-minded, in my view.
- More research seems unnecessary, perhaps even unethical, and most research in this area is not of high quality.
- ‘Appropriately designed’ sounds frightfully suspicious to me, because homeopaths tend to see any trial that fails to confirm their bizarre notions as ‘not appropriately designed’.
- ‘Professional homeopath’ is a term designed to mislead the public; lay homeopaths would be more to the point, I think.
The last time I had contact with Dr Fisher was when he fired me from the editorial board of his journal ‘Homeopathy’. He did that by sending me the following letter:
Dear Professor Ernst,
This is to inform you that you have been removed from the Editorial Board of Homeopathy. The reason for this is the statement you published on your blog on Holocaust Memorial Day 2013 in which you smeared homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine with a ‘guilt by association’ argument, associating them with the Nazis.
I should declare a personal interest….[Fisher goes on to tell a story which is personal and which I therefore omit]… I mention this only because it highlights the absurdity of guilt by association arguments.
Peter Fisher Editor-in-Chief, Homeopathy
I did not expect to have any more dealings with him after this rather unpleasant encounter. But, as it turns out, I recently did have a further encounter.
When the BMJ invited me to write a debate article about the question whether homeopathy should continue to be available on the NHS, I accepted (with some reservations, I hasten to add). At the time, I did not know who would do the ‘other side’ of this debate. It turned out to be Peter Fisher, and our two articles have just been published.
As one would expect from a good journal, the articles were both peer reviewed. One of the peer-reviewers of my piece was most scathing of it essentially claiming that it was entirely worthless. Feeling that this was a bit harsh and very impolite, I was keen to see who this reviewer had been; it was none other than Andrew Vickers. This is remarkable because Vickers had not only published several homeopathic papers with Fisher, but also had been in the employment of the ‘Royal London Homeopathic Hospital’ under Fisher. To the best of my knowledge, his conflicts of interested had not been disclosed. I did point that out to the BMJ, but they seemed to think nothing of it.
Anyway, I was pleased to eventually (the whole procedure took many months) see the articles published, but at the same time somewhat irritated by Fisher’s piece. It contained plenty of misleading information that the peer-reviewers obviously had failed to correct. Here is a small sample from Fishers piece:
… recent overviews have had more favourable conclusions, including a health technology assessment commissioned by the Swiss federal government that concluded that homeopathy is “probably” effective for upper respiratory tract infections and allergies.
Readers interested in the clinical evidence can access the CORE-HOM database of clinical research in homeopathy free of charge (www.carstens-stiftung.de/core-hom). It includes 1117 clinical trials of homeopathy, of which about 300 are randomised controlled trials.
In the podcast that accompanies the articles Fisher insists that, on this database, there are well over 300 RCT, and I had to admit that this was new to me. Keen to learn more, I registered with the database and had a look. What I found startled me. True, the database does claim that almost 500 RCTs are available, but just a very superficial scrutiny of these studies reveals that
- some are not truly randomised,
- some are not even clinical trials,
- the list includes dual publications, re-analyses of already published studies as well as aborted trials,
- many have never been peer-reviewed,
- many are not double-blind,
- many are not placebo controlled,
- the majority are of poor methodological quality.
As to the other thing mentioned in the above excerpt from Fisher’s article, the famous ‘health technology assessment commissioned by the Swiss federal government’, I can refer my readers to a blog post by J W Nienhuys which probably says it all, if not, there is plenty more criticism of this report available on the Internet.
My conclusion from all this?
THE QUEEN’S HOMEOPATH USES ARGUMENTS THAT SEEM JUST AS BOGUS AS HOMEOPATHY ITSELF.