MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

ethics

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A recent article from THE CHIROPRACTIC REPORT entitled ‘Media Criticism – Whether and How to Respond’ has caught my attention. It provides detailed and, in my view, quite remarkable advice to chiropractors as to how they should react to criticism. Here is an excerpt:

…the easiest media comment to challenge is one that makes an absolute claim – for example Salzberg’s claim that the practice of chiropractic is “highly dubious.” It also means that an effective response should usually not be absolute – claiming for example that chiropractic care can cure, or a specific chiropractic treatment is proven effective for, a specific condition.

Let’s explore this with an example. In 2008 a British journalist, Simon Singh, while promoting a new book he had co-authored that was heavily critical of chiropractic and complementary and alternative medicine in general, wrote an article in the Guardian newspaper in which he claimed that “there is not a jot of evidence” that chiropractic treatment can help children with “colic, sleeping and feeding problems . . . and prolonged crying.” In other words, a black and white claim.

There was and is evidence. Singh was wrong. How might you respond to this? Here are your options for reply, from the outspoken to the restrained:

a. Chiropractic is proven effective for the cure of infantile colic.

b. Spinal manipulation is proven effective for the cure of infantile colic

c. Manual treatments are proven effective for the cure of infantile colic

d. Chiropractic/spinal manipulation/ manual therapies may be effective in reducing the symptoms of infantile colic.

e. Where spinal joint dysfunction/subluxation is found, chiropractic/spinal manipulation/manual therapies may be effective in reducing abnormal and incessant crying in infants medically diagnosed as having infantile colic

f. Chiropractic care has a central focus of assessing and correcting spinal joint dysfunction/subluxation and its biomechanical and physiological effects, and where these are addressed many symptoms may be reduced including those associated with infantile colic.

The first three options are as black and white as Singh’s statement, and are not supported by the evidence. Some studies say yes, some no. All the other options, which have appropriate qualifiers and shades of gray, are supported by sound evidence.

Much of that evidence is referred to and referenced in the March 2010 issue of this Report, available online at www.chiropracticreport.com/pastissues. To answer Singh effectively one only has to produce some of the good quality research and question how he can be credible when he says “there is not a jot of evidence”.

With respect to evidence, in this context that means evidence published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. You may decide to comment on one or more anecdotal case reports from your practice to give your response greater human interest, but this will mean nothing unless supported by higher levels of published evidence.

Am I the only one to find this remarkable?

Am I wrong in interpreting this as detailed instructions to mislead the public?

Are these instructions not merely advice to defend chiropractic commercial interests at the expense of public health?

How can this be ethical?

Guest post by Louise Lubetkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard to believe but, in the last 35 years, I have written or edited a total of 49 books; about half of them on alternative medicine and the rest on various subjects related to clinical medicine and research. Each time a new one comes out, I am excited, of course, but this one is special:

  • I have not written a book for several years.
  • I have worked on it much longer than on any book before.
  • Never before have I written a book with is so much about myself.
  • None of my previous book covered material that is as ‘sensitive’ as this one.

I started on this book shortly after TRICK OR TREATMENT had been published. Its initial working title was ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE: THE INSIDE STORY. My aim was to focus on the extraordinary things which had happened during my time in Exeter, to shed some light on the often not so quaint life in academia, and to show how bizarre the world of alternative medicine truly is. But several people who know about these things and who had glanced at the first draft chapters strongly advised me to radically change this concept. They told me that such a book could only work as a personal memoire.

Yet I was most reluctant to write about myself; I wanted to write about science, research as well as the obstacles which some people manage to put in their way. So, after much discussion and contemplation, I compromised and added the initial chapters which told the reader about my background and my work prior to the Exeter appointment. This brought in subjects like my research on ‘Nazi-medicine’ (which, I believe, is more important than that on alternative medicine) that seemed almost entirely unrelated to alternative medicine, and the whole thing began to look a bit disjointed, in my view. However, my advisers felt this was a step in the right direction and argued that my compromise was not enough; they wanted more about me as a person, my motivations, my background etc. Eventually I (partly) gave in and provided a bit more of what they seemed to want.

But I am clearly not a novelist, most of what I have ever written is medical stuff; my style is too much that of a scientist – dry and boring. In other words, my book seemed to be going nowhere. Just when, after years of hard work, I was about to throw it all in the bin, help came from a totally unexpected corner.

Louise Lubetkin (even today, I have never met her in person) had contributed several posts as ‘guest editor’ to this blog, and I very much liked her way with words. When she offered to have a look at my book, I was thrilled. It is largely thanks to her that my ‘memoire’ ever saw the light of day. She helped enormously with making it readable and with joining up the seemingly separate episodes describes in my book.

Finding a fitting title was far from easy. Nothing seemed to encapsulate its contents, and ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’, the title I eventually chose, is a bit of a compromise; the subtitle does describe it much better, I think: A MEMOIR OF SEARCHING FOR TRUTH AND FINDING TROUBLE.

Now that the book is about to be published, I am anxious as never before on similar occasions. I do, of course, not think for a minute that it will be anything near to a best-seller, but I want people with an interest in alternative medicine, academia or science to read it (get it from a library to save money) and foremost I want them to understand why I wrote it. For me, this is neither about settling scores nor about self-promotion, it is about telling a story which is important in more than one way.

Adverse events have been reported extensively following chiropractic.  About 50% of patients suffer side-effects after seeing a chiropractor. The majority of these events are mild, transitory and self-limiting. However, chiropractic spinal manipulations, particularly those of the upper spine, have also been associated with very serious complications; several hundred such cases have been reported in the medical literature and, as there is no monitoring system to record these instances, this figure is almost certainly just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

Despite these facts, little is known about patient filed compensation claims related to the chiropractic consultation process. The aim of a new study was to describe claims reported to the Danish Patient Compensation Association and the Norwegian System of Compensation to Patients related to chiropractic from 2004 to 2012.

All finalized compensation claims involving chiropractors reported to one of the two associations between 2004 and 2012 were assessed for age, gender, type of complaint, decisions and appeals. Descriptive statistics were used to describe the study population.

338 claims were registered in Denmark and Norway between 2004 and 2012 of which 300 were included in the analysis. 41 (13.7%) were approved for financial compensation. The most frequent complaints were worsening of symptoms following treatment (n = 91, 30.3%), alleged disk herniations (n = 57, 19%) and cases with delayed referral (n = 46, 15.3%). A total financial payment of €2,305,757 (median payment €7,730) were distributed among the forty-one cases with complaints relating to a few cases of cervical artery dissection (n = 11, 5.7%) accounting for 88.7% of the total amount.

The authors concluded that chiropractors in Denmark and Norway received approximately one compensation claim per 100.000 consultations. The approval rate was low across the majority of complaint categories and lower than the approval rates for general practitioners and physiotherapists. Many claims can probably be prevented if chiropractors would prioritize informing patients about the normal course of their complaint and normal benign reactions to treatment.

Despite its somewhat odd conclusion (it is not truly based on the data), this is a unique article; I am not aware that other studies of chiropractic compensation  claims exist in an European context. The authors should be applauded for their work. Clearly we need more of the same from other countries and from all professions doing manipulative therapies.

In the discussion section of their article, the authors point out that Norwegian  and Danish chiropractors both deliver approximately two million consultations annually. They receive on average 42 claims combined suggesting roughly one claim per 100.000 consultations. By comparison, Danish statistics show that in the period 2007–2012 chiropractors, GPs and physiotherapists (+ occupational therapists) received 1.76, 1.32 and 0.52 claims per 100.000 consultations, respectively with approval rates of 13%, 25% and 21%, respectively. During this period these three groups were reimbursed on average €58,000, €29,000 and €18,000 per approved claim, respectively.

These data are preliminary and their interpretation might be a matter of debate. However, one thing seems clear enough: contrary to what we frequently hear from apologists, chiropractors do receive a considerable amount of compensation claims which means many patients do get harmed.

This investigation was aimed at examining the messages utilised by the chiropractic profession around issues of scope and efficacy through website communication with the public. For this purpose, the authors submitted the website content of 11 major Canadian chiropractic associations and colleges, and of 80 commercial clinics to a mixed-methods analysis. Content was reviewed to quantify specific health conditions described as treatable by chiropractic care. A qualitative textual analysis identified the primary messages related to evidence and efficacy utilised by the websites.

The results show that chiropractic was claimed to be capable of addressing a wide range of health issues. Quantitative analysis revealed that association and college websites identified a total of 41 unique conditions treatable by chiropractic, while private clinic websites named 159 distinct conditions. The most commonly cited conditions included back pain, headaches/migraines and neck pain. Qualitative analysis revealed three prominent themes drawn upon in discussions of efficacy and evidence: grounded in science, the conflation of safety and efficacy and “natural” healing.

The authors concluded that the chiropractic profession claims the capacity to treat health conditions that exceed those more traditionally associated with chiropractic. Website content persistently declared that such claims are supported by research and scientific evidence, and at times blurred the lines between safety and efficacy. The chiropractic profession may be struggling to define themselves both within the paradigm of conventional science as well as an alternative paradigm that embraces natural approaches.

These findings strike me as being similar to the ones we published 4 years ago. At this stage, we had conducted a review of 200 chiropractor websites and 9 chiropractic associations’ World Wide Web claims in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The outcome measures were claims (either direct or indirect) regarding the eight reviewed conditions, made in the context of chiropractic treatment: asthma, headache/migraine, infant colic, colic, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain, whiplash (not supported by sound evidence), and lower back pain (supported by some evidence).

We found evidence that 190 (95%) chiropractor websites made unsubstantiated claims regarding at least one of the conditions. When colic and infant colic data were collapsed into one heading, there was evidence that 76 (38%) chiropractor websites made unsubstantiated claims about all the conditions not supported by sound evidence. Fifty-six (28%) websites and 4 of the 9 (44%) associations made claims about lower back pain, whereas 179 (90%) websites and all 9 associations made unsubstantiated claims about headache/migraine. Unsubstantiated claims were made about asthma, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain.

At the time, we concluded that the majority of chiropractors and their associations in the English-speaking world seem to make therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence, whilst only 28% of chiropractor websites promote lower back pain, which is supported by some evidence. We suggest the ubiquity of the unsubstantiated claims constitutes an ethical and public health issue.

Comparing the two studies, what should we conclude? Of course, the new investigation was confined to Canada; we therefore cannot generalise its results to other countries. Nevertheless it provides a fascinating insight into the (lack of) development of chiropractic in this part of the world. My conclusion is that, at least in Canada, there is very little evidence that chiropractic is about to become an ethical and evidence-based profession.

The question that I hear with unfailing regularity when talking about alternative medicine is WHY IS IT SO POPULAR? I always struggle to find a simple answer – mainly because there is no simple answer. The reasons for patients and consumers to use alternative medicine are complex and multiple. They range from dissatisfaction with conventional medicine to clinging to the last straw. However, one factor is very clearly always involved: the often bafflingly uncritical promotion of quackery by the daily papers – and that even includes those with a reputation for being respectable.

Yesterday’s article in THE TELEGRAPH is as good an example as any. In the following section, I quote excerpts from it and add my own comments in bold. 

It is perhaps easier to list what the naturopath Katrin Hempel doesn’t offer her clients than what she does. Bioresonance and live blood analysis, acupuncture, biopuncture, infusion therapy, oxyvenation…”

Katrin Hempel, B.H.Sc.,ND, Dipl.Ac. describes herself on her website as an energetic, enthusiastic and experienced natural therapist with a great passion and commitment to the health and well-being of her patients. She calls herself a ‘naturopathic doctor’. I am not sure what this actually is but I am fairly sure she has not studied medicine. I do not doubt her enthusiasm, but I do doubt that most of the methods listed above are anything else but pure quackery.

“Germany has a long tradition of natural medicine, so it’s more common to find conventional doctors who have also studied natural medicine and use these modalities. Here we are at least 20 years behind.” That is true only, if one regards the integration of quackery as progress.

“Every cell in the body puts out a certain electromagnetic frequency, that can be measured – a healthy stomach cell sounds different to a healthy brain cell – and the machine can put the right resonance back in, to trigger deep healing.”) This is pure pseudoscience; neither live blood analysis nor bioresonance are supported by good evidence (and don’t even ask about ‘biopuncture’).

The article goes on misleading the reader in the most scandalous way by promoting pure nonsense. To provide a flavour, I will merely cite a few quotes from the ‘naturopathic doctor':

  • “If your digestion isn’t working properly there is a malabsorption of nutrients”
  • “Bioresonance can pick up a condition before it manifests as a disease.”
  • “Bioresonance measures the electromagnetic output of every cell in the body. If there’s any discrepancy with the healthy frequency for that kind of cell that gives a diagnosis.”
  • “Whatever the problem, at root it will be an imbalance in the cells.”

At no point in this article is there an attempt to challenge or critically analyse this bonanza in quackery; THE TELEGRAPH promotion of dangerous nonsense ends with the cheerful footnote informing the reader that one hour with the ‘naturopathic doctor’ will cost from £100. THE TELEGRAPH does not even shy away to print an address for booking a consultation with the ‘naturopathic doctor’.

But is it really all quackery? Yes it is! The article promotes so many unproven methods that I find it hard to choose one for demonstrating how irresponsible it really is. Let’s take life blood analysis (LBA), for instance; here is what I published about LBA some time ago:

The principle of LBA is fairly simple: a drop of blood is taken from your fingertip, put on a glass plate and viewed via a microscope on a video screen. Despite the claims made for it, LBA is by no means new; using his lately developed microscope, Antony van Leeuwenhoek observed in 1686 that living blood cells changed shape during circulation. Ever since, doctors, scientists and others have studied blood samples in this and other ways.

What is new, however, is what today’s “holistic practitioners” claim to be able to do with LBA. Proponents believe that the method provides information “about the state of the immune system, possible vitamin deficiencies, amount of toxicity, pH and mineral imbalance, areas of concern and weaknesses, fungus and yeast”, as another website puts it.

Others dare to be much more concrete and claim that they can “spot cancer and other degenerative immune system diseases up to two years before they would otherwise be detectable”; or say they can diagnose “lack of oxygen in the blood, low trace minerals, lack of exercise, too much alcohol or yeast, weak kidneys, bladder or spleen”. All this would amount to a remarkable discovery if it were true. But it’s not.

No credible scientific studies have demonstrated the reliability of LBA for detecting any of the above conditions. In what was, to the best of my knowledge, the first attempt to assess the value of this method, a practitioner with several years of experience in LBA tested the samples of 110 patients. Twelve had cancer and the task was to identify their samples without knowing further details. The results could hardly have been more disconcerting – just three of the 12 with confirmed cancer were detected, and the authors concluded that the method “does not seem to reliably detect cancer. Clinical use of the method can therefore not be recommended.”

And, in case you do not trust me, here is a recent Advertising Standards Authority ruling on LBA:

London Natural Therapies is in breach of the UK Advertising Standards Code for making unproven claims on its website about Live Blood Analysis. The CAP Compliance team has contacted London Natural Therapies several times about removing claims implying that Live Blood Analysis could be beneficial for Gastro Intestinal Tract Disorders, Allergies and Hormonal Imbalances after the ASA previously ruled that Live Blood Analysis was not effective in detecting/diagnosing those conditions. Despite repeated requests to remove the problem claims, London Natural Therapies continues to feature them on its website, www.londonnaturaltherapies.co.uk. Because of London Natural Therapies continued non-compliance we took the decision to place its details on this section of the ASA website on 26 June 2012. These details shall remain in place until such time as London Natural Therapies has removed or appropriately amended the claims on its website to ensure compliance with the CAP Code.

This is but one of many examples of truly shoddy journalism published in a daily paper that most people would call ‘respectable’. If anyone cares to look at the less respectable end to the journalistic spectrum, the picture gets even more horrific. The points I am trying to make are simple and, I think, important:

  1. Journalists and editors have a responsibility which, in the realm of alternative medicine, they often disregard most scandalously.
  2. Such poorly researched, unbalanced and uncritical articles can cause very serious harm.
  3. The promotion of quackery may be good for selling copy, but it can also quickly ruin the reputation of a paper.

“Dr” Brian Moravec is a chiropractor from the US; he has a website where he describes himself and his skills as follows: I attended Chiropractic College and I am a graduate of Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport Iowa. I earned a Bachelor of Science degree as well as my Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Palmer College, which is the first chiropractic college in the world and the origin of our profession. I also attend continuing education seminars designed to keep doctors current with regard to clinical chiropractic, technique and nutrition.

The key to overall health and wellness is to have a healthy nervous system and that is what I do as a chiropractor – I make sure that your spine is functioning at its best so that your nervous system functions at its best. When the nervous system is functioning at 100%, you are a healthier individual that experiences a higher quality of life and health. I know this to be true in myself, my family and my patients.

I go to great lengths to provide my patients with the best chiropractic care I can give. I work with my patients to design a treatment plan that will be effective for their particular condition and specific to their needs. We utilize manual and low force techniques (safe and effective for newborns to seniors), to correct sublaxations in the spine. Chiropractic adjustments remove nerve interference, which allows the body to perform at its best again. I also am available for consultations on nutrition and diet, dietary supplementation and how to minimize the wear and tear on your spine.

[Emphases are mine]

What he does not state is the fact that he also is a nifty e-mail writer!

To my great surprise, I received an e-mail from him which is far too good to be kept for myself. So I decided to share it with my readers; here it is in its full and unabbreviated beauty:

its interesting to see someone with your education, and is a self proclaimed “expert” on alternative medicine, promote so much misinformation with regard to chiropractic care.   fortunately you look old.  and soon will be gone.  I always refer to the few of you anti chiropractic fools left here as “dinosaurs”.   the proof is in the pudding my “friend”.  chiropractic works and will continue to be here for centuries more.   you and others with much much more power than you (the AMA for example) have tried to perpetuate lies and squash chiropractic.  you fail, and they failed, because whatever better serves mankind will stand the test of time.   you’re a dying breed edzard.  thank God.
yours in health,

brian moravec d.c.

I am encouraged to see that he recognises my education but do wonder why his upbringing obviously failed so dismally teach him even a minimum of politeness, tact, or critical thinking. It is disappointing, I think, that he does not even mention what he perceives as my lies about his beloved chiropractic. So sad, I am sure it would have been fun to debate with him.

‘Healing, hype or harm? A critical analysis of complementary or alternative medicine’ is the title of a book that I edited and that was published in 2008. Its publication date coincided with that of ‘Trick or Treatment?’ and therefore the former was almost completely over-shadowed by the latter. Consequently few people know about it. This is a shame, I think, and this post is dedicated to encouraging my readers to have a look at ‘Healing, hype or harm?’

One reviewer commented on Amazon about this book as follows: Vital and informative text that should be read by everyone alongside Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ and Singh and Ernt’s ‘Trick or Treatment’. Everyone should be able to made informed choices about the treatments that are peddled to the desperate and gullible. As Tim Minchin famously said ‘What do you call Alternative Medicine that has been proved to work? . . . Medicine!’

This is high praise indeed! But I should not omit the fact that others have commented that they were appalled by our book and found it “disappointing and unsettling”. This does not surprise me in the least; after all, alternative medicine has always been a divisive subject.

The book was written by a total of 17 authors and covers many important aspects of alternative medicine. Some of its most famous contributors are Michael Baum, Gustav Born, David Colquhoun, James Randi and Nick Ross. Some of the most important subjects include:

  • Compassion
  • Quackademia
  • Impartiality
  • Ethics
  • Politics
  • Holism
  • Vitalism
  • Placebo

As already mentioned, our book is already 6 years old; however, this does not mean that it is now out-dated. The subject areas were chosen such that it will be timely for a long time to come. Nor does this book reflect one single point of view; as it was written by over a dozen different experts with vastly different backgrounds, it offers an entire spectrum of views and attitudes. It is, in a word, a book that stimulates critical thinking and thoughtful analysis.

I sincerely think you should have a look at it… and, in case you think I am hoping to maximise my income by telling you all this: all the revenues from this book go to charity.

In 2004, I published an article rather boldly entitled ‘Ear candles: a triumph of ignorance over science’. Here is its summary:

Ear candles are hollow tubes coated in wax which are inserted into patients’ ears and then lit at the far end. The procedure is used as a complementary therapy for a wide range of conditions. A critical assessment of the evidence shows that its mode of action is implausible and demonstrably wrong. There are no data to suggest that it is effective for any condition. Furthermore, ear candles have been associated with ear injuries. The inescapable conclusion is that ear candles do more harm than good. Their use should be discouraged.

Sadly, since the publication of this paper, ear candles have not become less but more popular. There are about 3 000 000 websites on the subject; most are trying to sell products and make claims which are almost comically misguided; three examples have to suffice:

I said ALMOST comical because such nonsense has, of course a downside. Not only are consumers separated from their cash for no benefit whatsoever, but they are also exposed to danger; again, three examples from the medical literature might explain:

  • Otolaryngologists from London described a case of ear candling presenting as hearing loss, and they concluded that this useless therapy can actually cause damage to the ears.
  • A 50-year-old woman presented to her GP following an episode of ear candling. After 15 minutes, the person performing the candling burned herself while attempting to remove the candle and spilled candle wax into the patient’s right ear canal. On examination, a piece of candle wax was found in the patient’s ear, and she was referred to the local ear, nose, and throat department. Under general aesthetic, a large mass of solidified yellow candle wax was removed from the deep meatus of the ear. The patient had a small perforation in her right tympanic membrane. Results of a pure tone audiogram showed a mild conductive hearing loss on the right side. At a follow-up appointment 1 month later, the perforation was still there, and the patient’s hearing had not improved.
  • case report of a 4-year-old girl from New Zealand was published. The patient was diagnosed to suffer from otitis media. During the course of the ear examination white deposits were noticed on her eardrum; this was confirmed as being caused by ear candling.

I should stress that we do not know how often such events happen; there is no monitoring system, and one might expect that the vast majority of cases do not get published. Most consumers who experience such problems, I would guess, are far to embarrassed to admit that they have been taken in by this sort of quackery.

It was true 10 yeas ago and it is true today: ear candles are a triumph of ignorance over science. But also they are a victory of gullibility over common sense and the unethical exploitation of naive hope by greedy frauds.

When someone has completed a scientific project, it is customary to publish it [‘unpublished science is no science’, someone once told me many years ago]. To do so, he needs to write it up and submit it to a scientific journal. The editor of this journal will then submit it to a process called ‘peer review’.

What does ‘peer review’ entail? Well, it means that 2-3 experts are asked to critically assess the paper in question, make suggestions as to how it can be improved and submit a recommendation as to whether or not the article deserves to be published.

Peer review has many pitfalls but, so far, nobody has come up with a solution that is convincingly better. Many scientists are under pressure to publish [‘publish or perish’], and therefore some people resort to cheating. A most spectacular case of fraudulent peer review has been reported recently in this press release:

SAGE statement on Journal of Vibration and Control

London, UK (08 July 2014) – SAGE announces the retraction of 60 articles implicated in a peer review and citation ring at the Journal of Vibration and Control (JVC). The full extent of the peer review ring has been uncovered following a 14 month SAGE-led investigation, and centres on the strongly suspected misconduct of Peter Chen, formerly of National Pingtung University of Education, Taiwan (NPUE) and possibly other authors at this institution.

In 2013 the then Editor-in-Chief of JVC, Professor Ali H. Nayfeh,and SAGE became aware of a potential peer review ring involving assumed and fabricated identities used to manipulate the online submission system SAGE Track powered by ScholarOne Manuscripts™. Immediate action was taken to prevent JVC from being exploited further, and a complex investigation throughout 2013 and 2014 was undertaken with the full cooperation of Professor Nayfeh and subsequently NPUE.

In total 60 articles have been retracted from JVC after evidence led to at least one author or reviewer being implicated in the peer review ring. Now that the investigation is complete, and the authors have been notified of the findings, we are in a position to make this statement.

While investigating the JVC papers submitted and reviewed by Peter Chen, it was discovered that the author had created various aliases on SAGE Track, providing different email addresses to set up more than one account. Consequently, SAGE scrutinised further the co-authors of and reviewers selected for Peter Chen’s papers, these names appeared to form part of a peer review ring. The investigation also revealed that on at least one occasion, the author Peter Chen reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he had created.

Unbelievable? Perhaps, but sadly it is true; some scientists seem to be criminally ingenious when it comes to getting their dodgy articles into peer-reviewed journals.

And what does this have to do with ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, you may well ask. The Journal of Vibration and Control is not even medical and certainly would never consider publishing articles on alternative medicine. Such papers go to one of the many [I estimate more that 1000] journals that cover either alternative medicine in general or any of the modalities that fall under this wide umbrella. Most of these journals, of course, pride themselves with being peer-reviewed – and, at least nominally, that is correct.

I have been on the editorial board of most of the more important journals in alternative medicine, and I cannot help thinking that their peer review process is not all that dissimilar from the fraudulent scheme set up by Peter Chen and disclosed above. What happens in alternative medicine is roughly as follows:

  • a researcher submits a paper for publication,
  • the editor sends it out for peer review,
  • the peer reviewers are either those suggested by the original author or members of the editorial board of the journal,
  • in either case, the reviewers are more than likely to be uncritical and recommend publication,
  • in the end, peer review turns out to be a farcical window dressing exercise with no consequence,
  • thus even very poor research and pseudo-research are being published abundantly.

The editorial boards of journals of alternative medicine tend to be devoid of experts who are critical about the subject at hand. If you think that I am exaggerating, have a look at the editorial board members of ‘HOMEOPATHY’ (or any other journal of alternative medicine) and tell me who might qualify as a critic of homeopathy. When the editor, Peter Fisher, recently fired me from his board because he felt I had tarnished the image of homeopathy, this panel lost the only person who understood the subject matter and, at the same time, was critical about it (the fact that the website still lists me as an editorial board member is merely a reflection of how slow things are in the world of homeopathy: Fisher fired me more than a year ago).

The point I am trying to make is simple: peer review is never a perfect method but when it is set up to be deliberately uncritical, it cannot possibly fulfil its function to prevent the publication of dodgy research. In this case, the quality of the science will be inadequate and generate false-positive messages that mislead the public.

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