MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

bogus claims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On 1/12/2014 I published a post in which I offered to give lectures to students of alternative medicine:

Getting good and experienced lecturers for courses is not easy. Having someone who has done more research than most working in the field and who is internationally known, might therefore be a thrill for students and an image-boosting experience of colleges. In the true Christmas spirit, I am today making the offer of being of assistance to the many struggling educational institutions of alternative medicine .

A few days ago, I tweeted about my willingness to give free lectures to homeopathic colleges (so far without response). Having thought about it a bit, I would now like to extend this offer. I would be happy to give a free lecture to the students of any educational institution of alternative medicine.

I did not think that this would create much interest – and I was right: only the ANGLO-EUROPEAN COLLEGE OF CHIROPRACTIC has so far hoisted me on my own petard and, after some discussion (see comment section of the original post) hosted me for a lecture. Several people seem keen on knowing how this went; so here is a brief report.

I was received, on 14/1/2015, with the utmost kindness by my host David Newell. We has a coffee and a chat and then it was time to start the lecture. The hall was packed with ~150 students and the same number was listening in a second lecture hall to which my talk was being transmitted.

We had agreed on the title CHIROPRACTIC: FALLACIES AND FACTS. So, after telling the audience about my professional background, I elaborated on 7 fallacies:

  1. Appeal to tradition
  2. Appeal to authority
  3. Appeal to popularity
  4. Subluxation exists
  5. Spinal manipulation is effective
  6. Spinal manipulation is safe
  7. Ad hominem attack

Numbers 3, 5 and 6 were dealt with in more detail than the rest. The organisers had asked me to finish by elaborating on what I perceive as the future challenges of chiropractic; so I did:

  1. Stop happily promoting bogus treatments
  2. Denounce obsolete concepts like ‘subluxation’
  3. Clarify differences between chiros, osteos and physios
  4. Start a culture of critical thinking
  5. Take action against charlatans in your ranks
  6. Stop attacking everyone who voices criticism

I ended by pointing out that the biggest challenge, in my view, was to “demonstrate with rigorous science which chiropractic treatments demonstrably generate more good than harm for which condition”.

We had agreed that my lecture would be followed by half an hour of discussion; this period turned out to be lively and had to be extended to a full hour. Most questions initially came from the tutors rather than the students, and most were polite – I had expected much more aggression.

In his email thanking me for coming to Bournemouth, David Newell wrote about the event: The general feedback from staff and students was one of relief that you possessed only one head, :-). I hope you may have felt the same about us. You came over as someone who had strong views, a fair amount of which we disagreed with, but that presented them in a calm, informative and courteous manner as we did in listening and discussing issues after your talk. I think everyone enjoyed the questions and debate and felt that some of the points you made were indeed fair critique of what the profession may need to do, to secure a more inclusive role in the health care arena.

 
As you may have garnered from your visit here, the AECC is committed to this task as we continue to provide the highest quality of education for the 21st C representatives of such a profession. We believe centrally that it is to our society at large and our communities within which we live and work that we are accountable. It is them that we serve, not ourselves, and we need to do that as best we can, with the best tools we have or can develop and that have as much evidence as we can find or generate. In this aim, your talk was important in shining a more ‘up close and personal’ torchlight on our profession and the tasks ahead whilst also providing us with a chance to debate the veracity or otherwise of yours and ours differing positions on interpretation of the evidence.

My own impression of the day is that some of my messages were not really understood, that some of the questions, including some from the tutors, seemed like coming from a different planet, and that people were more out to teach me than to learn from my talk. One overall impression that I took home from that day is that, even in this college which prides itself of being open to scientific evidence and unimpressed by chiropractic fundamentalism, students are strangely different from other health care professionals. The most tangible aspect of this is the openly hostile attitude against drug therapies voiced during the discussion by some students.

The question I always ask myself after having invested a lot of time in preparing and delivering a lecture is: WAS IT WORTH IT? In the case of this lecture, I think the answer is YES. With 300 students present, I am fairly confident that I did manage to stimulate a tiny bit of critical thinking in a tiny percentage of them. The chiropractic profession needs this badly!

 

According to the ‘General Osteopathic Council’ (GOC), osteopathy is a primary care profession, focusing on the diagnosis, treatment, prevention and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal disorders, and the effects of these conditions on patients’ general health.

Using many of the diagnostic procedures applied in conventional medical assessment, osteopaths seek to restore the optimal functioning of the body, where possible without the use of drugs or surgery. Osteopathy is based on the principle that the body has the ability to heal, and osteopathic care focuses on strengthening the musculoskeletal systems to treat existing conditions and to prevent illness. 

Osteopaths’ patient-centred approach to health and well-being means they consider symptoms in the context of the patient’s full medical history, as well as their lifestyle and personal circumstances. This holistic approach ensures that all treatment is tailored to the individual patient.

On a good day, such definitions make me smile; on a bad day, they make me angry. I can think of quite a few professions which would fit this definition just as well or better than osteopathy. What are we supposed to think about a profession that is not even able to provide an adequate definition of itself?

Perhaps I try a different angle: what conditions do osteopaths treat? The GOC informs us that commonly treated conditions include back and neck pain, postural problems, sporting injuries, muscle and joint deterioration, restricted mobility and occupational ill-health.

This statement seems not much better than the previous one. What on earth is ‘muscle and joint deterioration’? It is not a condition that I find in any medical dictionary or textbook. Can anyone think of a broader term than ‘occupational ill health’? This could be anything from tennis elbow to allergies or depression. Do osteopaths treat all of those?

One gets the impression that osteopaths and their GOC are deliberately vague – perhaps because this would diminish the risk of being held to account on any specific issue?

The more one looks into the subject of osteopathy, the more confused one gets. The profession goes back to Andrew Still ((August 6, 1828 – December 12, 1917) Palmer, the founder of chiropractic is said to have been one of Still’s pupils and seems to have ‘borrowed’ most of his concepts from him – even though he always denied this) who defined osteopathy as a science which consists of such exact exhaustive and verifiable knowledge of the structure and functions of the human mechanism, anatomy and physiology & psychology including the chemistry and physics of its known elements as is made discernable certain organic laws and resources within the body itself by which nature under scientific treatment peculiar to osteopathic practice apart from all ordinary methods of extraneous, artificial & medicinal stimulation and in harmonious accord with its own mechanical principles, molecular activities and metabolic processes may recover from displacements, derangements, disorganizations and consequent diseases and regain its normal equilibrium of form and function in health and strength.

This and many other of his statements seem to indicate that the art of using language for obfuscation has a long tradition in osteopathy and goes back directly to its founding father.

What makes the subject of osteopathy particularly confusing is not just the oddity that, in conventional medicine, the term means ‘disease of the bone’ (which renders any literature searches in this area a nightmare) but also the fact that, in different countries, osteopaths are entirely different professionals. In the US, osteopathy has long been fully absorbed by mainstream medicine and there is hardly any difference between MDs and ODs. In the UK, osteopaths are alternative practitioners regulated by statute but are, compared to chiropractors, of minor importance. In Germany, osteopaths are not regulated and fairly ‘low key’, while in France, they are numerous and like to see themselves as primary care physicians.

And what about the evidence base of osteopathy? Well, that’s even more confusing, in my view. Evidence for which treatment? As US osteopaths might use any therapy from drugs to surgery, it could get rather complicated. So let’s just focus on the manual treatment as used by osteopaths outside the US.

Anyone who attempts to critically evaluate the published trial evidence in this area will be struck by at least two phenomena:

  1. the wide range of conditions treated with osteopathic manual therapy (OMT)
  2. the fact that there are several groups of researchers that produce one positive result after the next.

The best example is probably the exceedingly productive research team of J. C. Licciardone from the Osteopathic Research Center, University of North Texas. Here are a few conclusions from their clinical studies:

  1. The large effect size for OMT in providing substantial pain reduction in patients with chronic LBP of high severity was associated with clinically important improvement in back-specific functioning. Thus, OMT may be an attractive option in such patients before proceeding to more invasive and costly treatments.
  2. The large effect size for short-term efficacy of OMT was driven by stable responders who did not relapse.
  3. Osteopathic manual treatment has medium to large treatment effects in preventing progressive back-specific dysfunction during the third trimester of pregnancy. The findings are potentially important with respect to direct health care expenditures and indirect costs of work disability during pregnancy.
  4. Severe somatic dysfunction was present significantly more often in patients with diabetes mellitus than in patients without diabetes mellitus. Patients with diabetes mellitus who received OMT had significant reductions in LBP severity during the 12-week period. Decreased circulating levels of TNF-α may represent a possible mechanism for OMT effects in patients with diabetes mellitus. A larger clinical trial of patients with diabetes mellitus and comorbid chronic LBP is warranted to more definitively assess the efficacy and mechanisms of action of OMT in this population.
  5. The OMT regimen met or exceeded the Cochrane Back Review Group criterion for a medium effect size in relieving chronic low back pain. It was safe, parsimonious, and well accepted by patients.
  6. Osteopathic manipulative treatment slows or halts the deterioration of back-specific functioning during the third trimester of pregnancy.
  7. The only consistent finding in this study was an association between type 2 diabetes mellitus and tissue changes at T11-L2 on the right side. Potential explanations for this finding include reflex viscerosomatic changes directly related to the progression of type 2 diabetes mellitus, a spurious association attributable to confounding visceral diseases, or a chance observation unrelated to type 2 diabetes mellitus. Larger prospective studies are needed to better study osteopathic palpatory findings in type 2 diabetes mellitus.
  8. OMT significantly reduces low back pain. The level of pain reduction is greater than expected from placebo effects alone and persists for at least three months. Additional research is warranted to elucidate mechanistically how OMT exerts its effects, to determine if OMT benefits are long lasting, and to assess the cost-effectiveness of OMT as a complementary treatment for low back pain.

Based on this brief review of the evidence origination from one of the most active research team, one could be forgiven to think that osteopathy is a panacea. But such an assumption is, of course, nonsensical; a more reasonable conclusion might be the following: osteopathy is one of the most confusing and confused subject under the already confused umbrella of alternative medicine.

The very first article on a subject related to alternative medicine with a 2015 date that I came across is a case-report. I am afraid it will not delight our chiropractic friends who tend to deny that their main therapy can cause serious problems.

In this paper, US doctors tell the story of a young woman who developed headache, vomiting, diplopia, dizziness, and ataxia following a neck manipulation by her chiropractor. A computed tomography scan of the head was ordered and it revealed an infarct in the inferior half of the left cerebellar hemisphere and compression of the fourth ventricle causing moderately severe, acute obstructive hydrocephalus. Magnetic resonance angiography showed severe narrowing and low flow in the intracranial segment of the left distal vertebral artery. The patient was treated with mannitol and a ventriculostomy. Following these interventions, she made an excellent functional recovery.

The authors of the case-report draw the following conclusions: This report illustrates the potential hazards associated with neck trauma, including chiropractic manipulation. The vertebral arteries are at risk for aneurysm formation and/or dissection, which can cause acute stroke.

I can already hear the counter-arguments: this is not evidence, it’s an anecdote; the evidence from the Cassidy study shows there is no such risk!

Indeed the Cassidy study concluded that vertebral artery accident (VBA) stroke is a very rare event in the population. The increased risks of VBA stroke associated with chiropractic and primary care physician visits is likely due to patients with headache and neck pain from VBA dissection seeking care before their stroke. We found no evidence of excess risk of VBA stroke associated chiropractic care compared to primary care. That, of course, was what chiropractors longed to hear (and it is the main basis for their denial of risk) – so much so that Cassidy et al published the same results a second time (most experts feel that this is a violation of publication ethics).

But repeating arguments does not make them more true. What we should not forget is that the Cassidy study was but one of several case-control studies investigating this subject. And the totality of all such studies does not deny an association between neck manipulation and stroke.

Much more important is the fact that a re-analysis of the Cassidy data found that prior studies grossly misclassified cases of cervical dissection and mistakenly dismissed a causal association with manipulation. The authors of this new paper found a classification error of cases by Cassidy et al and they re-analysed the Cassidy data, which reported no association between spinal manipulation and cervical artery dissection (odds ratio [OR] 5 1.12, 95% CI .77-1.63). These re-calculated results reveal an odds ratio of 2.15 (95% CI.98-4.69). For patients less than 45 years of age, the OR was 6.91 (95% CI 2.59-13.74). The authors of the re-analysis conclude as follows: If our estimates of case misclassification are applicable outside the VA population, ORs for the association between SMT exposure and CAD are likely to be higher than those reported using the Rothwell/Cassidy strategy, particularly among younger populations. Future epidemiologic studies of this association should prioritize the accurate classification of cases and SMT exposure.
I think they are correct; but my conclusion of all this would be more pragmatic and much simpler: UNTIL WE HAVE CONVINCING EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY, WE HAVE TO ASSUME THAT CHIROPRACTIC NECK MANIPULATION CAN CAUSE A STROKE.

I know, it’s not really original to come up with the 10000th article on “10 things…” – but you will have to forgive me, I read so many of these articles over the holiday period that I can’t help but jump on the already over-crowded bandwagon and compose yet another one.

So, here are 10 things which could, if implemented, bring considerable improvement in 2015 to my field of inquiry, alternative medicine.

  1. Consumers need to get better at acting as bull shit (BS) detectors. Let’s face it, much of what we read or hear about this subject is utter BS. Yet consumers frequently lap up even the worst drivel like it were some source of deep wisdom. They could save themselves so much money, if they learnt to be just a little bit more critical.
  2. Dr Oz should focus on being a heart surgeon. His TV show has been demonstrated far too often to be promoting dangerous quackery. Yet as a heart surgeon, he actually might do some good.
  3. Journalists ought to remember that they have a job that extends well beyond their ambition to sell copy. They have a responsibility to inform the public truthfully and responsibly.
  4. Book publishers should abstain from churning out book after book that does little else but mislead the public about alternative medicine in a way that all to often is dangerous to the readers’ health. The world does not need the 1000th book repeating nonsense on detox, wellness etc.!
  5. Alternative practitioners must realise that claiming that therapy x cures condition y is not just slightly over-optimistic (or based on ‘years of experience’); if the claim is not based on sound evidence, it is what most people would call an outright lie.
  6. Proponents of alternative medicine should learn that it is neither fair nor productive to fiercely attack everyone personally who disagrees with their enthusiasm for this or that form of alternative medicine. In fact, it merely highlights the acute lack of rational arguments.
  7. Researchers of alternative medicine have to remember how important it is to think critically – an uncritical scientist is at best a contradiction in terms and at worst a pseudo-scientist who is likely to cause harm.
  8. Authorities should amass the courage, the political power and the financial means of going after those charlatans who ruthlessly exploit the public by making a fast and easy buck on the gullibility of consumers. Only if there is the likelihood of hefty fines will we see a meaningful decrease in the current epidemic of alternative health fraud.
  9. Politicians should realise that alternative medicine is not just a trivial subject with which one might win votes, if one issues platitudes to please the majority; alternative medicine is used by so many people that it has become an important public health issue.
  10. Prince Charles need to learn how to control himself and abstain from meddling in health politics by using every conceivable occasion to promote what he thinks is ‘integrated medicine’ but which, in fact, can easily be disclosed to be quackery.

As you see, my list almost instantly turned into a wish-list, and the big questions that follow from it are:

  1. How could we increase the likelihood of these wishes to come true?
  2. And would there be anything left of alternative medicine, if all of these wishes miraculously became true in 2015?

I do not pretend to have the answers, but I do feel strongly that a healthy dose of critical thinking in all levels of education – from kindergartens to schools, from colleges to universities etc. – would be a good and necessary starting point.

I know, my list is not just a wish list, it also is a wishful thinking list. It would be hopelessly naïve to assume that major advances will be made in 2015. I am realistic, sometimes even quite pessimistic, about progress in alternative medicine. But this does not mean that I or anyone else should just give up. 2015 will be a year where at least one thing is certain: you will see me continuing me my fight for reason, critical analysis, rational debate and good evidence – and that’s a promise!

Well, not everywhere actually; if you go on Medline, for instance, and search for ‘detox’, you hardly find anything at all on detox as used in alternative medicine. This is because there is no science behind it (for the purpose of this post, ‘detox’ means the alternative detox that is supposed to rid us from environmental poisons and, more relevant to the Christmas season, of the effects of over-indulgence). Notwithstanding this lack of science and evidence, detox is currently being heavily promoted in magazines, newspapers and, of course, via the Internet.

Take the heir to our thrown, Prince Charles, for instance; he famously marketed his Duchy Originals ‘DETOX TINCTURE’. And he has competition from thousands who also exploit the gullible with similar placebos. One website even claimed that “2014 was the year of the cleanse diet. Celebrities swear by them and more and more people have been getting in on the action, whether it’s to detox diet, brighten skin, lose weight, or get a fresh start. And nowhere is that more evident than in Yahoo’s Year in Review, where different health cleanses consistently topped the site’s most popular stories lists. Here, the year’s top 10 most popular cleanses.”

The author then continues by promoting 10 different forms of detox:

1. A Colon Cleanse.

2. A Liver Cleanse.

3. The Master Cleanse.

4. The 10-Day Green Smoothie Cleanse.

5. A Juice Cleanse.

6. Detox Cleanse.

7. Slendera Garcinia and Natural Cleanse.

8. Dherbs Full Body Cleanse.

9. Blueprint Cleanse.

10. Isagenix Cleanse for Life.

These treatments seem diverse but they all have one thing in common: they do not work; they do not eliminate poisons from the body, they merely eliminate cash from your wallet.

But being so very negative is not the way forward, some might argue. Why does he not tell us which forms of detox do actually work?

Because it is Christmas, I will do just that and provide my readers with a full list of detox treatments that are effective. If you are looking for a specific type of detox and it is not on the list, it means you should spend your money on something else, stop over-indulging yourself and adopt a sensibly health lifestyle.

HERE WE GO – THIS IS MY COMPLETE LIST OF EFFECTIVE FORMS OF DETOX:

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MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE

How many times have we heard from practitioners of alternative medicine, particularly chiropractors, that their patients are more severely ill than those of conventional clinicians. The claim is usually that they have tried all that conventional medicine can offer and eventually, as a last resort, they turn to the alternatives.

But is this true? If so, it would explain why these patients do no better or even worse than those treated conventionally.

Here is a new article that goes some way in addressing these issues.

For this study, Danish chiropractors and general practitioners recruited adult patients seeking care for low back pain (LBP). Extensive baseline questionnaires were obtained and descriptive analyses were performed to define the differences between the two populations.

Questionnaires were returned from 934 patients in chiropractic practice and 319 patients from general practice. Four out of five patients had previous episodes, one-fourth were on sick leave, and the LBP considerably limited daily activities. The general practice patients were slightly older and less educated, more often female, and generally worse on all disease-related parameters than chiropractic patients. All the disease specific parameters showed a statistically significant difference between general and chiropractic practice. Patients in general practice were generally more severely affected. They had higher pain intensity (mainly for leg pain), longer pain duration, more previous episodes, more sick leave, more activity limitation on the disability scale, slightly higher level of depression, slightly more fear-avoidance beliefs, and a poorer self-reported general health. All these differences were statistically significant.

The authors concluded that LBP in primary care was recurrent, causing sick leave and activity limitations. There were clear differences between the chiropractic and general practice populations in this study.

I know, I know: these findings are from Denmark and therefore they cannot be generalised to other countries. However, the authors point out that similar findings have been reported from the US. Furthermore the observations relate to chiropractors and must not be applied to other alternative practitioners. Nevertheless they do show that, in this specific scenario, patients opting for the alternative are not more but less severely ill.

The next time an alternative practitioner claims ‘my patients have worse outcomes because they are sicker’, I will insist on seeing the evidence before I believe it.

Dietary supplements (DS) are heavily promoted usually with the claim that they have stood the test of time and that they are natural and hence harmless. Unsurprisingly, their use has become very wide-spread. A new study determined the use of DSs, factors associated with DS use, and reasons for use among U.S. college students.

College students (N = 1248) at 5 U.S. universities were surveyed. Survey questions included descriptive demographics, types and frequency of DS used, reasons for use and money spent on supplements. Supplements were classified using standard criteria. Logistic regression analyses examined relationships between demographic and lifestyle factors and DS use.

Sixty-six percent of college students surveyed used DS at least once a week, and 12% consumed 5 or more supplements a week. Forty-two percent used multivitamins/multiminerals, 18% vitamin C, 17% protein/amino acids and 13% calcium at least once a week. Factors associated with supplement use included dietary patterns, exercise, and tobacco use. Students used supplements to promote general health (73%), provide more energy (29%), increase muscle strength (20%), and enhance performance (19%).

The authors of this survey concluded that college students appear more likely to use DS than the general population and many use multiple types of supplements weekly. Habits established at a young age persist throughout life. Therefore, longitudinal research should be conducted to determine whether patterns of DS use established early in adulthood are maintained throughout life. Adequate scientific justification for widespread use of DS in healthy, young populations is lacking.

Another new study investigated the use of DSs in 334 dancers from 53 countries, who completed a digitally based 35-question survey detailing demographic information and the use of DSs. Supplement use was prevalent amongst this international cohort, with 48% reporting regular DSs use. Major motives for supplement use were to improve health, boost immunity, and reduce fatigue. Forty-five percent believed that dancing increased the need for supplementation, whilst 30% recognized that there were risks associated with DSs.

The most frequently consumed DSs were vitamin C (60%), multivitamins (67%), and caffeine (72%). A smaller group of participants declared the use of whey protein (21%) or creatine (14%). Supplements were mainly obtained from pharmacies, supermarkets, and health-food stores. Dancers recognized their lack of knowledge in DSs use and relied on peer recommendations instead of sound evidence-based advice from acknowledged nutrition or health care professionals.

The authors concluded that this study demonstrates that DSs use is internationally prevalent amongst dancers. Continued efforts are warranted with regard to information dissemination.

Finally, a third study investigated use of DSs in patients in Japan. This survey was completed by 2732 people, including 599 admitted patients, 1154 ambulatory patients, and 979 healthy subjects who attended a seminar about DSs. At the time of the questionnaire, 20.4% of admitted patients, 39.1% of ambulatory patients, and 30.7% of healthy subjects were using DSs, which including vitamin/mineral supplements, herbal extracts, its ingredients, or food for specified health uses.

The primary purpose for use in all groups was health maintenance, whereas 3.7% of healthy subjects, 10.0% of ambulatory patients, and 13.2% of admitted patients used DSs to treat diseases. In addition, 17.7% of admitted patients and 36.8% of ambulatory patients were using DSs concomitantly with their medications. However, among both admitted patients and ambulatory patients, almost 70% did not mention DSs use to their physicians. Overall, 3.3% of all subjects realized adverse effects associated with DSs.

The authors concluded that communication between patients and physicians is important to avoid health problems associated with the use of DSs.

There is little doubt, DSs are popular with all sorts of populations and have grown into a multi billion dollar industry. There is also no doubt that the use of only very few DSs are evidence-based (and if so, in only relatively rare situations). And there can be no doubt that many DSs can do harm. What follows is simple: for the vast majority of DSs the benefits do not demonstrably out-weigh the risks.

If that is true, we have to ask ourselves: Why are they so popular?

The answer, I think, is because of the very phenomenon I am constantly trying to fight on this blog – IRRESPONSIBLE CHARLATANS PULLING WOOL OVER CONSUMERS EYES.

Guest post by Pete Attkins

Commentator “jm” asked a profound and pertinent question: “What DOES it take for people to get real in this world, practice some common sense, and pay attention to what’s going on with themselves?” This question was asked in the context of asserting that personal experience always trumps the results of large-scale scientific experiments; and asserting that alt-med experts are better able to provide individulized healthcare than 21st Century orthodox medicine.

What does common sense and paying attention lead us to conclude about the following? We test a six-sided die for bias by rolling it 100 times. The number 1 occurs only once and the number 6 occurs many times, never on its own, but in several groups of consecutive sixes.

I think it is reasonable to say that common sense would, and should, lead everyone to conclude that the die is biased and not fit for its purpose as a source of random numbers.

In other words, we have a gut feeling that the die is untrustworthy. Gut instincts and common sense are geared towards maximizing our chances of survival in our complex and unpredictable world — these are innate and learnt behaviours that have enabled humans to survive despite the harshness of our ever changing habitat.

Only very recently in the long history of our species have we developed specialized tools that enable us to better understand our harsh and complex world: science and critical thinking. These tools are difficult to master because they still haven’t been incorporated into our primary and secondary formal education systems.

The vast majority of people do not have these skills therefore, when a scientific finding flies in the face of our gut instincts and/or common sense, it creates an overwhelming desire to reject the finding and classify the scientist(s) as being irrational and lacking basic common sense. It does not create an intense desire to accept the finding then painstakingly learn all of the science that went into producing the finding.

With that in mind, let’s rethink our common sense conclusion that the six-sided die is biased and untrustworthy. What we really mean is that the results have given all of us good reason to be highly suspicious of this die. We aren’t 100% certain that this die is biased, but our gut feeling and common sense are more than adequate to form a reasonable mistrust of it and to avoid using it for anything important to us. Reasons to keep this die rather than discard it might be to provide a source of mild entertainment or to use its bias for the purposes of cheating.

Some readers might be surprised to discover at this point that the results I presented from this apparently heavily-biased die are not only perfectly valid results obtained from a truly random unbiased die, they are to be fully expected. Even if the die had produced 100 sixes in that test, it would not confirm that the die is biased in any way whatsoever. Rolling a truly unbiased die once will produce one of six possible outcomes. Rolling the same die 100 times will produce one unique sequence out of the 6^100 (6.5 x 10^77) possible sequences: all of which are equally valid!

Gut feeling plus common sense rightfully informs us that the probability of a random die producing one hundred consecutive sixes is so incredibly remote that nobody will ever see it occur in reality. This conclusion is also mathematically sound: if there were 6.5 x 10^77 people on Earth, each performing the same test on truly random dice, there is no guarantee that anyone would observe a sequence of one hundred consecutive sixes.

When we observe a sequence such as 2 5 1 4 6 3 1 4 3 6 5 2… common sense informs us that the die is very likely random. If we calculate the arithmetic mean to be very close to 3.5 then common sense will lead us to conclude that the die is both random and unbiased enough to use it as a reliable source of random numbers.

Unfortunately, this is a perfect example of our gut feelings and common sense failing us abysmally. They totally failed to warn us that the 2 5 1 4 6 3 1 4 3 6 5 2… sequence we observed had exactly the same (im)probability of occurring as a sequence of one hundred 6s or any other sequence that one can think of that doesn’t look random to a human observer.

The 100-roll die test is nowhere near powerful enough to properly test a six-sided die, but this test is more than adequately powered to reveal some of our cognitive biases and some of the deficits in our personal mastery of science and critical thinking.

To properly test the die we need to provide solid evidence that it is both truly random and that its measured bias tends towards zero as the number of rolls tends towards infinity. We could use the services of one testing lab to conduct billions of test rolls, but this would not exclude errors caused by such things as miscalibrated equipment and experimenter bias. It is better to subdivide the testing across multiple labs then carefully analyse and appropriately aggregate the results: this dramatically reduces errors caused by equipment and humans.

In medicine, this testing process is performed via systematic reviews of multiple, independent, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials — every trial that is insufficiently powered to add meaningfully to the result is rightfully excluded from the aggregation.

Alt-med relies on a diametrically opposed testing process. It performs a plethora of only underpowered tests; presents those that just happen to show a positive result (just as a random die could’ve produced); and sweeps under the carpet the overwhelming number of tests that produced a negative result. It publishes only the ‘successes’, not its failures. By sweeping its failures under the carpet it feels justified in making the very bold claim: Our plethora of collected evidence shows clearly that it mostly ‘works’ and, when it doesn’t, it causes no harm.

One of the most acidic tests for a hypothesis and its supporting data (which is a mandatory test in a few branches of critical engineering) is to substitute the collected data for random data that has been carefully crafted to emulate the probability mass functions of the collected datasets. This test has to be run multiple times for reasons that I’ve attempted to explain in my random die example. If the proposer of the hypothesis is unable to explain the multiple failures resulting from this acid test then it is highly likely that the proposer either does not fully understand their hypothesis or that their hypothesis is indistinguishable from the null hypothesis.

Naturopathy can be defined as ‘an eclectic system of health care that uses elements of complementary and conventional medicine to support and enhance self-healing processes’. This basically means that naturopaths employ treatments based on those therapeutic options that are seen as natural, e. g. herbs, water, exercise, diet, fresh air, heat and cold – but occasionally also acupuncture, homeopathy and manual therapies. If you are tempted to see a naturopath, you might want to consider the following 7 points:

  1. In many countries, naturopathy is not a protected title; this means your naturopaths may have some training but this is not obligatory. Some medical doctors also practice naturopathy, and in some countries there are ‘doctors of naturopathy’ (these practitioners tend to see themselves as primary care physicians but they have not been to medical school).
  2. Naturopathy is steeped in the obsolete concept of vitalism which has been described as the belief that “living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things.”
  3. While there is some evidence to suggest that some of the treatments used by naturopaths are effective for treating some conditions, this is by no means the case for all of the treatments in question.
  4. Naturopathy is implicitly based on the assumption that natural means safe. This notion is clearly wrong and misleading: not all the treatments used by naturopaths are strictly speaking natural, and very few are totally free of risks.
  5. Many naturopaths advise their patients against conventional treatments such as vaccines or antibiotics.
  6. Naturopaths tend to believe they can cure all or most diseases. Consequently many of the therapeutic claims for naturopathy found on the Internet and elsewhere are dangerously over-stated.
  7. The direct risks of naturopathy depend, of course, on the modality used; some of them can be considerable. The indirect risks of naturopathy can be even more serious and are mostly due to naturopathic treatments replacing more effective conventional therapies in cases of severe illness.
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