MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

unreason

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As a pharmacy professional, you must:

1. Make patients your first concern
2. Use your professional judgement in the interests of patients and the public
3. Show respect for others
4. Encourage patients and the public to participate in decisions about their care
5. Develop your professional knowledge and competence
6. Be honest and trustworthy
7. Take responsibility for your working practices.

Even though these 7 main principles were laid down by the UK General Pharmaceutical Council, they are pretty much universal and apply to pharmacists the world over.

On this blog, I have repeatedly criticised community pharmacists (here I am only discussing this branch of pharmacists) for selling remedies which are not just of debatable efficacy but which fly in the face of science and have been all but disproven. Recently, I came across this website of a working group of the Austrian Society of Pharmacists. It is in German, so I will translate a few sections for you.

They say that it is their aim to find “explanatory models for the mechanisms of action of homeopathy”. This is a strange aim, in my view, not least because there is no proven efficacy; why then search for a mechanism?

Things go from bad to worse when we consider the ‘Notfallapotheke’, the emergency kit which they recommend to consumers who might find themselves in desperate need for emergency care. It includes the following remedies, doses and indications:

Aconitum C 30 2 x 5 Glob, first remedy in cases of fever
Allium cepa C 12 3 x 5 Glob, hayfever or cold
Anamirta cocculusLM 12 : 2 x 5, travel sickness
Apis mellifica C 200 2 x 5 Glob, insect bites
Arnica C 200 1 x 5 Glob, injuries
Acidum arsenicosum C 12 3 – 5 x 5, food poisoning
Atropa belladonna C 30 2 x 5 Glob, high fever
Cephaelis ipecacuahna C 12 2 x 5 Glob, nausea and vomiting
Coffea arabica C 12 2 x 5 Glob, insomnia and restlessness
Euphrasia officinalis C 12 3 x 5 Glob, eye problems
Ferrum phosphoricum C 12 2 x 5 Glob, nose bleed
Lachesis muta C 30 1 x 5 Glob, infected wounds
Lytta vesicatoria C 200 1 – 2 x 5, burns,
Matricaria chamomilla C 30 1 x 3 Glob, toothache
Mercurius LM 12 2 x 5 Glob ear ache, weakness
Pulsatilla LM 12 2 x 5 Glob, ear ache, indigestion
Solanum dulcamara C12 3 x 5 Glob, cystitis
Strychnos nux vomica LM 12 2 x 5 Glob, hangover
Rhus toxicodendron C 200 2 x 5 Glob, rheumatic pain
Veratrum album C12, 3-5 x 3, watery diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, circulatory problems, collapse.

I can well imagine that, after reading this, some of my readers are in need of some Veratrum album because of near collapse with laughter (or fury?).

We all know that most pharmacists sell such useless remedies; and we might pity them for such behaviour, as they claim they have no choice. But if pharmacists’ professional organisations put themselves so very clearly behind quackery thereby violating all ethical rules in the book, one is truly speechless.

Do I hear someone mutter “what has Austria to do with us?”?

Not a lot, perhaps – but have a look at the range of similar ‘homeopathic emergency kits’ sold outside Austria. Or be stunned by the plethora of homeopathic pharmacies across the globe here and UK-wide here. Or consider the fact that most non-homeopathic pharmacies in the world sell homeopathic remedies. Or let me remind you that a snapshot investigation into UK pharmacies revealed that 13 out of 20 pharmacisits failed to explain that there’s no clinical evidence that homeopathy works. Or be once again reminded that it is “the ethical role of the pharmacist is to give accurate, impartial information regarding the homeopathic therapy, the current scientific proof on their therapeutic effects, including the placebo effect.”

And what is the current scientific proof?

The most reliable verdict that I am aware of comes from the Australian ‘NATIONAL HEALTH AND MEDICAL RESEARCH COUNCIL’ (NHMRC) who have assessed the effectiveness of homeopathy. The evaluation concluded that “the evidence from research in humans does not show that homeopathy is effective for treating the range of health conditions considered.”

I rest my case.

Many proponents of alternative medicine seem somewhat suspicious of research; they have obviously understood that it might not produce the positive result they had hoped for; after all, good research tests hypotheses and does not necessarily confirm beliefs. At the same time, they are often tempted to conduct research: this is perceived as being good for the image and, provided the findings are positive, also good for business.

Therefore they seem to be tirelessly looking for a study design that cannot ‘fail’, i.e. one that avoids the risk of negative results but looks respectable enough to be accepted by ‘the establishment’. For these enthusiasts, I have good news: here is the study design that cannot fail.

It is perhaps best outlined as a concrete example; for reasons that will become clear very shortly, I have chosen reflexology as a treatment of diabetic neuropathy, but you can, of course, replace both the treatment and the condition as it suits your needs. Here is the outline:

  • recruit a group of patients suffering from diabetic neuropathy – say 58, that will do nicely,
  • randomly allocate them to two groups,
  • the experimental group receives regular treatments by a motivated reflexologist,
  • the controls get no such therapy,
  • both groups also receive conventional treatments for their neuropathy,
  • the follow-up is 6 months,
  • the following outcome measures are used: pain reduction, glycemic control, nerve conductivity, and thermal and vibration sensitivities,
  • the results show that the reflexology group experience more improvements in all outcome measures than those of control subjects,
  • your conclusion: This study exhibited the efficient utility of reflexology therapy integrated with conventional medicines in managing diabetic neuropathy.

Mission accomplished!

This method is fool-proof, trust me, I have seen it often enough being tested, and never has it generated disappointment. It cannot fail because it follows the notorious A+B versus B design (I know, I have mentioned this several times before on this blog, but it is really important, I think): both patient groups receive the essential mainstream treatment, and the experimental group receives a useless but pleasant alternative treatment in addition. The alternative treatment involves touch, time, compassion, empathy, expectations, etc. All of these elements will inevitably have positive effects, and they can even be used to increase the patients’ compliance with the conventional treatments that is being applied in parallel. Thus all outcome measures will be better in the experimental compared to the control group.

The overall effect is pure magic: even an utterly ineffective treatment will appear as being effective – the perfect method for producing false-positive results.

And now we hopefully all understand why this study design is so very popular in alternative medicine. It looks solid – after all, it’s an RCT!!! – and it thus convinces even mildly critical experts of the notion that the useless treatment is something worth while. Consequently the useless treatment will become accepted as ‘evidence-based’, will be used more widely and perhaps even reimbursed from the public purse. Business will be thriving!

And why did I employ reflexology for diabetic neuropathy? Is that example not a far-fetched? Not a bit! I used it because it describes precisely a study that has just been published. Of course, I could also have taken the chiropractic trial from my last post, or dozens of other studies following the A+B versus B design – it is so brilliantly suited for misleading us all.

On this blog, I have often pointed out how dismally poor most of the trials of alternative therapies frequently are, particularly those in the realm of chiropractic. A brand-new study seems to prove my point.

The aim of this trial was to determine whether spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) plus home exercise and advice (HEA) compared with HEA alone reduces leg pain in the short and long term in adults with sub-acute and chronic back-related leg-pain (BRLP).

Patients aged 21 years or older with BRLP for least 4 weeks were randomised to receive 12 weeks of SMT plus HEA or HEA alone. Eleven chiropractors with a minimum of 5 years of practice experience delivered SMT in the SMT plus HEA group. The primary outcome was subjective BRLP at 12 and 52 weeks. Secondary outcomes were self-reported low back pain, disability, global improvement, satisfaction, medication use, and general health status at 12 and 52 weeks.

Of the 192 enrolled patients, 191 (99%) provided follow-up data at 12 weeks and 179 (93%) at 52 weeks. For leg pain, SMT plus HEA had a clinically important advantage over HEA (difference, 10 percentage points [95% CI, 2 to 19]; P = 0.008) at 12 weeks but not at 52 weeks (difference, 7 percentage points [CI, -2 to 15]; P = 0.146). Nearly all secondary outcomes improved more with SMT plus HEA at 12 weeks, but only global improvement, satisfaction, and medication use had sustained improvements at 52 weeks. No serious treatment-related adverse events or deaths occurred.

The authors conclude that, for patients with BRLP, SMT plus HEA was more effective than HEA alone after 12 weeks, but the benefit was sustained only for some secondary outcomes at 52 weeks.

This is yet another pragmatic trial following the notorious and increasingly popular A+B versus B design. As pointed out repeatedly on this blog, this study design can hardly ever generate a negative result (A+B is always more than B, unless A has a negative value [which even placebos don't have]). Thus it is not a true test of the experimental treatment but all an exercise to create a positive finding for a potentially useless treatment. Had the investigators used any mildly pleasant placebo with SMT, the result would have been the same. In this way, they could create results showing that getting a £10 cheque or meeting with pleasant company every other day, together with HEA, is more effective than HEA alone. The conclusion that the SMT, the cheque or the company have specific effects is as implicit in this article as it is potentially wrong.

The authors claim that their study was limited because patient-blinding was not possible. This is not entirely true, I think; it was limited mostly because it failed to point out that the observed outcomes could be and most likely are due to a whole range of factors which are not directly related to SMT and, most crucially, because its write-up, particularly the conclusions, wrongly implied cause and effect between SMT and the outcome. A more accurate conclusion could have been as follows: SMT plus HEA was more effective than HEA alone after 12 weeks, but the benefit was sustained only for some secondary outcomes at 52 weeks. Because the trial design did not control for non-specific effects, the observed outcomes are consistent with SMT being an impressive placebo.

No such critical thought can be found in the article; on the contrary, the authors claim in their discussion section that the current trial adds to the much-needed evidence base about SMT for subacute and chronic BRLP. Such phraseology is designed to mislead decision makers and get SMT accepted as a treatment of conditions for which it is not necessarily useful.

Research where the result is known before the study has even started (studies with a A+B versus B design) is not just useless, it is, in my view, unethical: it fails to answer a real question and is merely a waste of resources as well as an abuse of patients willingness to participate in clinical trials. But the authors of this new trial are in good and numerous company: in the realm of alternative medicine, such pseudo-research is currently being published almost on a daily basis. What is relatively new, however, that even some of the top journals are beginning to fall victim to this incessant stream of nonsense.

A recent article by Frank King (DC, ND) caught my eye. In it, he praises homeopathy in glowing terms. First I was not sure whether he is pulling my leg; then I decided he was entirely serious. Am I mistaken?

Here is the crucial passage for you to decide:

Even though the founder of homeopathy lived more than 200 years ago, he wrote about genetics. Samuel Hahnemann, MD, not only emphasized the importance of natural healing methods, he also recognized the influence of genetics in some types of illnesses.

Hahnemann used the term miasm to refer to the source of chronic diseases. He recognized several miasms, such as psora (meaning “itch”), syphilis, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and cancer. In addition to recognizing and naming these miasms, he developed homeopathic remedies to address and correct them.

When your patient treatment protocols reach a plateau with chiropractic and nutritional support, consider turning to the constitutional homeopathic remedies, miasms, and detoxification formulas. Toxins inhibit the body’s ability to heal by interfering with the normal nerve pathways.

For example: Due to the steady growth in heavy-metal exposure modern civilization has experienced since the Industrial Revolution, mercury could be considered a modern miasm. Animal studies indicate that mercury’s negative effects can carry through to future generations, just as some of the other miasms do.

Mercurius is homeopathically prepared mercury to help address the symptoms of mercury toxicity, which can manifest as slow thought processes, chilliness, weak digestion, sore throat, and night sweats.

This is just one of the more than 1,300 Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States ingredients recognized by the FDA.

Homeopathy can be the perfect complement to chiropractic care. It can correct the energetics (including the genetics) of the deepest areas of the body, mind, and emotions, where the hands of the chiropractor can’t reach.

In case you don’t know much about homeopathy, it is true that Hahnemann believed in ‘miasms’, i.e. noxious vapours as the cause of a disposition to certain diseases. Even by Hahnemann’s standards, it turned out to be one of his more crazy ideas. To claim that, by believing in miasms, he foresaw the science of genetics is more than a little far-fetched.

In case you are not sure what toxins do in our body, rest assured that only chiropractors believe they inhibit the body’s ability to heal by interfering with the normal nerve pathways.

And in case you think you suffer from slow thought processes, chilliness, weak digestion, sore throat, and night sweats and thus feel like rushing to the next pharmacy to buy some Mercurius, don’t! This would not eliminate any mercury from your body, it would just eliminate cash from your pocket (in that sense, homeopathy might indeed occasionally reach where the hands of the chiropractor can’t reach).

One can say a lot about alternative medicine, I think, but nobody can deny that it regularly provides us with perfect (unintentional) comedy.

The UK ‘Society of Homeopaths’ just proudly made this announcement: “From today, patients will be able to choose a homeopath belonging to a register vetted and approved by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (PSA). The Society of Homeopaths’ voluntary register has been accredited under a new scheme set up by the Department of Health and administered by an independent body, accountable to Parliament.”

No, it is not April fools day, but it is clearly time to rejoice and to start believing in homeopathy. Not an easy task, you might say; perhaps this new and equally amazing article outlining 10 reasons to love homeopathy will make it a little more feasible (as it is pure comedy gold, I have only shortened it very slightly)?

1. For Love: Love your family, love thy neighbor, love your homeopath. Even if you don’t need a homeopath, your aunt, your grandmother, or grandchild might…

2. For money. Homeopathic medicines are generally less expensive than patent medicines, which have prices driven by profit, not by cost nor benefit…

3. For your bodies, minds, spirits, and communities. Homeopathy works… How is it possible that everyone can find instances where a homeopathic doctor was able to solve a problem…?

4. Because you are royalty. Kings and queens have used homeopathy – with positive effects. The Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II has a personal physician – a homeopath. She has used homeopathic medicines for her pets as well. If it’s good enough for royalty, it’s good enough for you.

5. Because someday you might need a chiropractor, a Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner, Acupuncturist, an Osteopathic Doctor, an Ayurvedic practitioner, or even a midwife. …Attacking homeopathy, suggesting it be banned, is a first step in the wrong direction. Many medical disciplines are attacked independently, with a goal to remove them all from your market, your freedom to choose. If we ban homeopaths, ask yourself – who’s next?

6. For Your Freedoms: Freedom to choose Homeopathy. Freedom to choose your medicines and treatments. There are many who might prefer that you have fewer freedoms, especially those with something to sell. There are many nonsense restrictions on your freedom to choose, and freedoms avoid, specific medical treatments. It’s your body, your mind, your spirit, and your life. You have the right to choose…

7. For your symptoms. The medical model classifies all symptoms as indications of illness. It does not recognize that symptoms can be indications of healthiness, and seldom recognizes that symptoms can be indications of healing or fighting illness. Homeopathy looks at symptoms from a completely different viewpoint… 

8. For your health. Today, it’s illegal to market a product that claims to ‘improves your health’, without reference to illness. All ‘health claims’ must reference ‘a disease or health related condition’. It is illegal to sell a ‘health product’ without a reference to scientific studies of ‘illness’. Medicine, is blind to health. Homeopathy challenges many medical dogmas, opening a door open to a more comprehensive, broader, more clear view of healthiness – not just illness.

9. For your Doctor. Whether your doctor is a homeopath or not, she might need access to homeopathic ideas and medicines. Homeopathy is practiced by many doctors, dentists, naturopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists, physician assistants, nurses, even veterinarians, and more. If homeopathy is banned, these medical professionals will be limited, or forced to hide their beliefs and activities.

10. For science. Some argue that homeopathy cannot pass the tests of science. These are people who do not understand science. Science does not find truths, it asks questions and seeks answers. The answers it finds, if they are useful, raise higher, more important questions. When science is stifled, when science becomes illegal, we all lose.

This is all so very sweet that I almost hesitate to bring you back to reality. But I have to, this is no blog for dreamers!

Here is a reminder what level-headed, independent and thorough experts have to say about homeopathy; I am sorry, if their statement comes a bit like a cold shower to the irrationalists: the evidence from research in humans does not show that homeopathy is effective for treating the range of health conditions considered.”

So, what should we make of the UK government’s decision to register homeopaths? Personally, I now look forward to the day when parliament starts discussing the new London airport for flying carpets – but, as always, I look forward to your answers.

Bach Flower Remedies are the brain child of Dr Edward Bach who, as an ex-homeopath, invented his very own highly diluted remedies. Like homeopathic medicines, they are devoid of active molecules and are claimed to work via some non-defined ‘energy’. Consequently, the evidence for these treatments is squarely negative: my systematic review analysed the data of all 7 RCTs of human patients or volunteers that were available in 2010. All but one were placebo-controlled. All placebo-controlled trials failed to demonstrate efficacy. I concluded that the most reliable clinical trials do not show any differences between flower remedies and placebos.

But now, a new investigation has become available. The aim of this study was to evaluate the effect of Bach flower Rescue Remedy on the control of risk factors for cardiovascular disease in rats.

A randomized longitudinal experimental study was conducted on 18 Wistar rats which were randomly divided into three groups of six animals each and orogastrically dosed with either 200μl of water (group A, control), or 100μl of water and 100μl of Bach flower remedy (group B), or 200μl of Bach flower remedy (group C) every 2 days, for 20 days. All animals were fed standard rat chow and water ad libitum.

Urine volume, body weight, feces weight, and food intake were measured every 2 days. On day 20, tests of glycemia, hyperuricemia, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and total cholesterol were performed, and the anatomy and histopathology of the heart, liver and kidneys were evaluated. Data were analyzed using Tukey’s test at a significance level of 5%.

No significant differences were found in food intake, feces weight, urine volume and uric acid levels between groups. Group C had a significantly lower body weight gain than group A and lower glycemia compared with groups A and B. Groups B and C had significantly higher HDL-cholesterol and lower triglycerides than controls. Animals had mild hepatic steatosis, but no cardiac or renal damage was observed in the three groups.

From these results, the authors conclude that Bach flower Rescue Remedy was effective in controlling glycemia, triglycerides, and HDL-cholesterol and may serve as a strategy for reducing risk factors for cardiovascular disease in rats. This study provides some preliminary “proof of concept” data that Bach Rescue Remedy may exert some biological effects.

If ever there was a bizarre study, it must be this one:

  • As far as I know, nobody has ever claimed that Rescue Remedy modified cardiovascular risk factors.
  • It seems debatable whether the observed changes are all positive as far as the cardiovascular risk is concerned.
  • It seems odd that a remedy that does not contain active molecules is associated with some sort of dose-effect response.
  • The modification of cardiovascular risk factors in rats might be of little relevance for humans.
  • A strategy for reducing cardiovascular risk factors in rats seems a strange idea.
  • Even the authors cannot offer a mechanism of action [other than pure magic].

Does this study tell us anything of value? The authors are keen to point out that it provides a preliminary proof of concept for Rescue Remedy having biological effects. Somehow, I doubt that this conclusion will convince many of my readers.

It has been estimated that 40 – 70% of all cancer patients use some form of alternative medicine; may do so in the hope this might cure their condition. A recent article by Turkish researchers – yet again – highlights how dangerous such behaviour can turn out to be.

The authors report the cases of two middle-aged women suffering from malignant breast masses. The patients experienced serious complications in response to self-prescribed use of alternative medicine practices to treat their condition in lieu of evidence-based medical treatments. In both cases, the use and/or inappropriate application of alternative medical approaches promoted the progression of malignant fungating lesions in the breast. The first patient sought medical assistance upon development of a fungating lesion, 7∼8 cm in diameter and involving 1/3 of the breast, with a palpable mass of 5×6 cm immediately beneath the wound. The second patient sought medical assistance after developing of a wide, bleeding, ulcerous area with patchy necrotic tissue that comprised 2/3 of the breast and had a 10×6 cm palpable mass under the affected area.

The authors argue that the use of some non-evidence-based medical treatments as complementary to evidence-based medical treatments may benefit the patient on an emotional level; however, this strategy should be used with caution, as the non-evidence-based therapies may cause physical harm or even counteract the evidence-based treatment.

Their conclusions: a malignant, fungating wound is a serious complication of advanced breast cancer. It is critical that the public is informed about the potential problems of self-treating wounds such as breast ulcers and masses. Additionally, campaigns are needed to increase awareness of the risks and life-threatening potential of using non-evidence-based medical therapies exclusively.

I have little to add to this; perhaps just a further reminder that the risk extends, of course, to all serious conditions: even a seemingly harmless but ineffective therapy can become positively life-threatening, if it is used as an alternative to an effective treatment. I am sure that some ‘alternativists’ will claim that I am alarmist; but I am also convinced that they are wrong.

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.

DOCTOR Jeffrey Collins, a chiropractor from the Chicago area, just sent me an email which, I think, is remarkable and hilarious – so much so that I want to share it with my readers. Here it is in its full length and beauty:

If you really think you can resolve all back pain syndromes with a pill then you are dumber than you look. I’ve been a chiropractor for 37 years and the primary difference between seeing me vs. an orthopedic surgeon for back pain is simple. When you have ANY fixation in the facet joint, the motor untitled is compromised. These are the load bearing joints in the spine and only an idiot would not realize they are the primary source of pain. The idea of giving facet blocks under fluoroscopy is so dark ages. Maybe you could return to blood letting. The fact that you attack chiropractors as being dangerous when EVERY DAY medical doctors kill people but that’s OK in the name of science. Remember Vioxx? Oh yeah that drug killed over 80,000 patients that they could find. It was likely double that. Oddly I have treated over 10,000 in my career and nobody died. Not one. I guess I was just lucky. I went to Palmer in Iowa. The best chiropractors come out of there. I should qualify that. The ones that have a skill adjusting the spine. 

I will leave you with this as a simple analogy most patients get. Anyone who has ever “cracked their knuckles” will tell you that they got immediate relief and joint function was restored instanter. That’s chiropractic in a nutshell. Not complicated and any chiropractor worth his salt can do that for 37 years without one adverse incident. A monkey could hand out pain pills and you know it. Only in America do you have to get a script to get to a drugstore so everybody gets a cut. What a joke. Somehow mitigating pain makes you feel better about yourselves when you are the real sham. Funny how chiropractors pay the LOWEST malpractice rates in the country. That must be luck as well. Where’s your science now? I would love to debate a guy like you face to face. If you ever come to Chicago email me and let’s meet. Then again guys like you never seem to like confrontation. 

I’ve enjoyed this and glad I found your site. Nobody reads the crap that you write and I found this by mistake. Keep the public in the dark as long as you can. It’s only a matter of time before it’s proven DRUGS ARE WORTHLESS.

I am pleased that DOCTOR Collins had fun. Now let me try to have some merriment as well.

This comment is a classic in several ways, for instance, it

  • starts with a frightfully primitive insult,
  • boasts of the author’s authority (37 years of experience) without mentioning anything that remotely resembles real evidence,
  • provides pseudoscientific explanations for quackery,
  • returns to insults (only an idiot return to blood letting),
  • uses classical fallacies (…medical doctors kill people),
  • returns to more boasting about authority (I went to Palmer in Iowa. The best chiropractors come out of there…),
  • injects a little conspiracy theory (…everybody gets a cut),
  • returns to insults (…you are the real sham… guys like you never seem to like confrontation.) 
  • and ends with an apocalyptic finish: It’s only a matter of time before it’s proven DRUGS ARE WORTHLESS.

I should not mock DOCTOR Collins, though; I should be thankful to him for at least two reasons. Firstly, he confirmed my theory that “Ad hominem attacks are signs of victories of reason over unreason“. Secondly, he made a major contribution to my enjoyment of this otherwise somewhat dreary bank holiday, and I hope the same goes for my readers.

Twenty years ago, when I started my Exeter job as a full-time researcher of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM), I defined the aim of my unit as applying science to CAM. At the time, this intention upset quite a few CAM-enthusiasts. One of the most prevalent arguments of CAM-proponents against my plan was that the study of CAM with rigorous science was quite simply an impossibility. They claimed that CAM included mind and body practices, holistic therapies, and other complex interventions which cannot not be put into the ‘straight jacket’ of conventional research, e. g. a controlled clinical trial. I spent the next few years showing that this notion was wrong. Gradually and hesitantly CAM researchers seemed to agree with my view – not all, of course, but first a few and then slowly, often reluctantly the majority of them.

What followed was a period during which several research groups started conducting rigorous tests of the hypotheses underlying CAM. All too often, the results turned out to be disappointing, to say the least: not only did most of the therapies in question fail to show efficacy, they were also by no means free of risks. Worst of all, perhaps, much of CAM was disclosed as being biologically implausible. The realization that rigorous scientific scrutiny often generated findings which were not what proponents had hoped for led to a sharp decline in the willingness of CAM-proponents to conduct rigorous tests of their hypotheses. Consequently, many asked whether science was such a good idea after all.

But that, in turn, created a new problem: once they had (at least nominally) committed themselves to science, how could they turn against it? The answer to this dilemma was easier that anticipated: the solution was to appear dedicated to science but, at the same time, to argue that, because CAM is subtle, holistic, complex etc., a different scientific approach was required. At this stage, I felt we had gone ‘full circle’ and had essentially arrived back where we were 20 years ago – except that CAM-proponents no longer rejected the scientific method outright but merely demanded different tools.

A recent article may serve as an example of this new and revised stance of CAM-proponents on science. Here proponents of alternative medicine argue that a challenge for research methodology in CAM/ICH* is the growing recognition that CAM/IHC practice often involves complex combination of novel interventions that include mind and body practices, holistic therapies, and others. Critics argue that the reductionist placebo controlled randomized control trial (RCT) model that works effectively for determining efficacy for most pharmaceutical or placebo trial RCTs may not be the most appropriate for determining effectiveness in clinical practice for either CAM/IHC or many of the interventions used in primary care, including health promotion practices. Therefore the reductionist methodology inherent in efficacy studies, and in particular in RCTs, may not be appropriate to study the outcomes for much of CAM/IHC, such as Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM) or other complex non-CAM/IHC interventions—especially those addressing comorbidities. In fact it can be argued that reductionist methodology may disrupt the very phenomenon, the whole system, that the research is attempting to capture and evaluate (i.e., the whole system in its naturalistic environment). Key issues that surround selection of the most appropriate methodology to evaluate complex interventions are well described in the Kings Fund report on IHC and also in the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) guidelines for evaluating complex interventions—guidelines which have been largely applied to the complexity of conventional primary care and care for patients with substantial comorbidity. These reports offer several potential solutions to the challenges inherent in studying CAM/IHC. [* IHC = integrated health care]

Let’s be clear and disclose what all of this actually means. The sequence of events, as I see it, can be summarized as follows:

  • We are foremost ALTERNATIVE! Our treatments are far too unique to be subjected to reductionist research; we therefore reject science and insist on an ALTERNATIVE.
  • We (well, some of us) have reconsidered our opposition and are prepared to test our hypotheses scientifically (NOT LEAST BECAUSE WE NEED THE RECOGNITION THAT THIS MIGHT BRING).
  • We are dismayed to see that the results are mostly negative; science, it turns out, works against our interests.
  • We need to reconsider our position.
  • We find it inconceivable that our treatments do not work; all the negative scientific results must therefore be wrong.
  • We always said that our treatments are unique; now we realize that they are far too holistic and complex to be submitted to reductionist scientific methods.
  • We still believe in science (or at least want people to believe that we do) – but we need a different type of science.
  • We insist that RCTs (and all other scientific methods that fail to demonstrate the value of CAM) are not adequate tools for testing complex interventions such as CAM.
  • We have determined that reductionist research methods disturb our subtle treatments.
  • We need pragmatic trials and similarly ‘soft’ methods that capture ‘real life’ situations, do justice to CAM and rarely produce a negative result.

What all of this really means is that, whenever the findings of research fail to disappoint CAM-proponents, the results are by definition false-negative. The obvious solution to this problem is to employ different (weaker) research methods, preferably those that cannot possibly generate a negative finding. Or, to put it bluntly: in CAM, science is acceptable only as long as it produces the desired results.

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