Monthly Archives: October 2013
Having disclosed in my previous post that, on 1 October, I have been in full-time alternative medicine research for exactly 20 years, I thought it might be interesting to briefly reflect on these two decades. One thing I ought to make clear from the beginning: I truly enjoy my work (well, ~90% of it anyway). When I came to Exeter, I never expected it to get so fascinating, and I am surprised to see how it gripped me.
A PERIOD OF TWO HALVES
One could divide these two decades in two periods of roughly equal length. The first half was characterised by defining my aims, assembling a team, getting the infrastructure sorted and doing plenty of research. I had made it very clear from the beginning that I was not going to promote alternative medicine; my aim was to critically evaluate it. Once I realised how controversial and high profile some of our work could become, I made a conscious effort to keep out of any disputes and tried to avoid the limelight. I wanted to first do my ‘homework’, analyse the evidence, produce own results and be quite sure of my own position before I entered into any public controversies. During this time, we therefore almost exclusively published in medical journals, lectured to medical audiences and generally kept as low a public profile as possible.
The second half was characterised by much more research and my increasing willingness to stick my head out and stand up publicly for the findings I had reasons to be confident about. The evidence had reached a point where it was simply no longer possible nor ethical to keep silent. I felt we had a moral duty to speak up and present the evidence clearly; and that often meant going public: after all, alternative medicine is an area where the public often make the therapeutic decisions without consulting a health care professional – so they need accurate and reliable information. Therefore, I began publishing in the daily papers, lecturing to lay audiences more regularly and addressing the public in many other ways.
THE PLEASURE OF SUPPORTING YOUNG SCIENTISTS
One of the most gratifying aspects of directing a research team is to meet and befriend scientists from all over the world. When several independent analyses had shown that our team had grown into the most productive research unit in alternative medicine worldwide, we started receiving numerous requests from young scientists across the globe to join us. Many of those individuals later went back to their home countries to occupy key positions in research. Our concept of critical evaluation thus spread around the world – at least this is what I hope when I feel optimistic about our achievements.
Amongst the ~90 staff who have worked with me during the last 20 years, we had many enthusiastic and gifted scientists. I owe thanks to all of those who advanced our research and helped us to make progress through critical evaluation. Unfortunately, we also had a few co-workers who, despite of our best efforts, proved to be unable of critical thinking, and more than once this created unrest, tension and trouble. When I analyse these cases in retrospect, I realise how quasi-religious belief must inevitably get in the way of good science. If a person is deeply convinced about the value of his/her particular alternative therapy and thus decides to become a researcher in order to prove his/her point, serious problems are unavoidable.
THE THREE MOST IMPORTANT MESSAGES
But generally speaking, my team worked both very well and extremely hard. Perhaps the best evidence for that statement is the fact that we published more than 1000 articles in the peer review literature, including ~30 clinical trials and 300 systematic reviews/meta-analyses. If I had to extract what I consider to be the three the most important messages from these papers, I might make the following points:
- The concepts that underpin alternative treatments are often not plausible and must be assessed critically.
- Most claims made for alternative medicine are unproven and quite a few should be regarded as disproven.
- Very few alternative therapies demonstrably generate more good than harm.
Looking back to those 20 years, I am struck by the frequency with which I encountered intellectual dishonesty and denial of facts and evidence. Medical research, I had previously assumed is a rather dry and unemotional business – not so when it comes to research into alternative medicine! Here it is dominated by people who carry so much emotional baggage that rational analysis becomes the exception rather than the rule.
The disappointment of alternative medicine apologists had been noticeable virtually from the start; they had quickly realised that I was not in the business of promoting quackery. My remit was to test hypotheses, and when you do that, you have to try to falsify them. To those who fail to understand the rules of science – and that is the vast majority of alternative medicine fans – this process can appear like a negative, perhaps even destructive activity. Consequently, some people began to suspect that I was working against their interests. In fact, as a researcher, I had little patience with such people’s petty interests; all I wanted is to do good science, hopefully for the benefit of the patient.
These sentiments grew dramatically during the second decade when I began to go public with the evidence which often failed to confirm the expectations of alternative medicine enthusiasts. To see the truth published in relatively obscure medical journals might have already been tough for them; to see it in the daily papers or hear it on the radio from someone whom they could not easily accuse of incompetence was obviously more than the evangelic believers could take. Their relatively cautious attitude towards our work soon changed into overt aggression, particularly after our book ‘TRICK OR TREATMENT…‘. The second decade was therefore also characterised by numerous attacks, challenges, defamations and conflicts, not least the ‘run ins’ with Prince Charles and his sycophants. Unfortunately, my own University as well as my newly formed Medical School had no stomach for such battles; the top officials of both institutions seemed more concerned about their knighthoods than about defending me against obviously malicious attacks which could only have one aim: to silence me.
But silence they did me not! It is simply not in my character to give up when I know that I have done nothing wrong and fighting ‘the good fight’. On the contrary, each attack merely strengthened my resolve to fight harder for what I knew was right, ethical and necessary. Eventually, my peers became so frustrated with my resilience that they pulled the plug: they stopped all support. This meant my team had to be dismissed and I had to go into early retirement.
Since about a year, I am ‘Emeritus Professor’, a status which has disadvantages (no co-workers to help with the research, no salary) but also important advantages. I can finally speak the truth without fearing that some administrator suffering from acute ‘knighthood starvation syndrome’ is going to try to discipline me for my actions.
This blog, I think, is pretty good evidence for the fact that I continue to enjoy my work in alternative medicine. I cannot promise to do another 20 years but, for the time being, I continue to be research-active and am involved in numerous other activities. Currently I am also writing a book which will provide a full account of those remarkable last 20 years (almost finished but I have no publisher yet) and I am working on the concept of another book that deals with alternative medicine in more general terms. They did not silence me yet, and I do not assume they will soon.
It was 20 years ago today that I started my job as ‘Professor of Complementary Medicine’ at the University of Exeter and became a full-time researcher of all matters related to alternative medicine. One issue that was discussed endlessly during these early days was the question whether alternative medicine can be investigated scientifically. There were many vociferous proponents of the view that it was too subtle, too individualised, too special for that and that it defied science in principle. Alternative medicine, they claimed, needed an alternative to science to be validated. I spent my time arguing the opposite, of course, and today there finally seems to be a consensus that alternative medicine can and should be submitted to scientific tests much like any other branch of health care.
Looking back at those debates, I think it is rather obvious why apologists of alternative medicine were so vehement about opposing scientific investigations: they suspected, perhaps even knew, that the results of such research would be mostly negative. Once the anti-scientists saw that they were fighting a lost battle, they changed their tune and adopted science – well sort of: they became pseudo-scientists (‘if you cannot beat them, join them’). Their aim was to prevent disaster, namely the documentation of alternative medicine’s uselessness by scientists. Meanwhile many of these ‘anti-scientists turned pseudo-scientists’ have made rather surprising careers out of their cunning role-change; professorships at respectable universities have mushroomed. Yes, pseudo-scientists have splendid prospects these days in the realm of alternative medicine.
The term ‘pseudo-scientist’ as I understand it describes a person who thinks he/she knows the truth about his/her subject well before he/she has done the actual research. A pseudo-scientist is keen to understand the rules of science in order to corrupt science; he/she aims at using the tools of science not to test his/her assumptions and hypotheses, but to prove that his/her preconceived ideas were correct.
So, how does one become a top pseudo-scientist? During the last 20 years, I have observed some of the careers with interest and think I know how it is done. Here are nine lessons which, if followed rigorously, will lead to success (… oh yes, in case I again have someone thick enough to complain about me misleading my readers: THIS POST IS SLIGHTLY TONGUE IN CHEEK).
- Throw yourself into qualitative research. For instance, focus groups are a safe bet. This type of pseudo-research is not really difficult to do: you assemble about 5 -10 people, let them express their opinions, record them, extract from the diversity of views what you recognise as your own opinion and call it a ‘common theme’, write the whole thing up, and – BINGO! – you have a publication. The beauty of this approach is manifold: 1) you can repeat this exercise ad nauseam until your publication list is of respectable length; there are plenty of alternative medicine journals who will hurry to publish your pseudo-research; 2) you can manipulate your findings at will, for instance, by selecting your sample (if you recruit people outside a health food shop, for instance, and direct your group wisely, you will find everything alternative medicine journals love to print); 3) you will never produce a paper that displeases the likes of Prince Charles (this is more important than you may think: even pseudo-science needs a sponsor [or would that be a pseudo-sponsor?]).
- Conduct surveys. These are very popular and highly respected/publishable projects in alternative medicine – and they are almost as quick and easy as focus groups. Do not get deterred by the fact that thousands of very similar investigations are already available. If, for instance, there already is one describing the alternative medicine usage by leg-amputated police-men in North Devon, and you nevertheless feel the urge of going into this area, you can safely follow your instinct: do a survey of leg-amputated police men in North Devon with a medical history of diabetes. There are no limits, and as long as you conclude that your participants used a lot of alternative medicine, were very satisfied with it, did not experience any adverse effects, thought it was value for money, and would recommend it to their neighbour, you have secured another publication in an alternative medicine journal.
- If, for some reason, this should not appeal to you, how about taking a sociological, anthropological or psychological approach? How about studying, for example, the differences in worldviews, the different belief systems, the different ways of knowing, the different concepts about illness, the different expectations, the unique spiritual dimensions, the amazing views on holism – all in different cultures, settings or countries? Invariably, you will, of course, conclude that one truth is at least as good as the next. This will make you popular with all the post-modernists who use alternative medicine as a playground for getting a few publications out. This approach will allow you to travel extensively and generally have a good time. Your papers might not win you a Nobel prize, but one cannot have everything.
- It could well be that, at one stage, your boss has a serious talk with you demanding that you start doing what (in his narrow mind) constitutes ‘real science’. He might be keen to get some brownie-points at the next RAE and could thus want you to actually test alternative treatments in terms of their safety and efficacy. Do not despair! Even then, there are plenty of possibilities to remain true to your pseudo-scientific principles. By now you are good at running surveys, and you could, for instance, take up your boss’ suggestion of studying the safety of your favourite alternative medicine with a survey of its users. You simply evaluate their experiences and opinions regarding adverse effects. But be careful, you are on somewhat thinner ice here; you don’t want to upset anyone by generating alarming findings. Make sure your sample is small enough for a false negative result, and that all participants are well-pleased with their alternative medicine. This might be merely a question of selecting your patients cleverly. The main thing is that your conclusion is positive. If you want to go the extra pseudo-scientific mile, mention in the discussion of your paper that your participants all felt that conventional drugs were very harmful.
- If your boss insists you tackle the daunting issue of therapeutic efficacy, there is no reason to give up pseudo-science either. You can always find patients who happened to have recovered spectacularly well from a life-threatening disease after receiving your favourite form of alternative medicine. Once you have identified such a person, you write up her experience in much detail and call it a ‘case report’. It requires a little skill to brush over the fact that the patient also had lots of conventional treatments, or that her diagnosis was assumed but never properly verified. As a pseudo-scientist, you will have to learn how to discretely make such irritating details vanish so that, in the final paper, they are no longer recognisable. Once you are familiar with this methodology, you can try to find a couple more such cases and publish them as a ‘best case series’ – I can guarantee that you will be all other pseudo-scientists’ hero!
- Your boss might point out, after you have published half a dozen such articles, that single cases are not really very conclusive. The antidote to this argument is simple: you do a large case series along the same lines. Here you can even show off your excellent statistical skills by calculating the statistical significance of the difference between the severity of the condition before the treatment and the one after it. As long as you show marked improvements, ignore all the many other factors involved in the outcome and conclude that these changes are undeniably the result of the treatment, you will be able to publish your paper without problems.
- As your boss seems to be obsessed with the RAE and all that, he might one day insist you conduct what he narrow-mindedly calls a ‘proper’ study; in other words, you might be forced to bite the bullet and learn how to plan and run an RCT. As your particular alternative therapy is not really effective, this could lead to serious embarrassment in form of a negative result, something that must be avoided at all cost. I therefore recommend you join for a few months a research group that has a proven track record in doing RCTs of utterly useless treatments without ever failing to conclude that it is highly effective. There are several of those units both in the UK and elsewhere, and their expertise is remarkable. They will teach you how to incorporate all the right design features into your study without there being the slightest risk of generating a negative result. A particularly popular solution is to conduct what they call a ‘pragmatic’ trial, I suggest you focus on this splendid innovation that never fails to produce anything but cheerfully positive findings.
- It is hardly possible that this strategy fails – but once every blue moon, all precautions turn out to be in vain, and even the most cunningly designed study of your bogus therapy might deliver a negative result. This is a challenge to any pseudo-scientist, but you can master it, provided you don’t lose your head. In such a rare case I recommend to run as many different statistical tests as you can find; chances are that one of them will nevertheless produce something vaguely positive. If even this method fails (and it hardly ever does), you can always home in on the fact that, in your efficacy study of your bogus treatment, not a single patient died. Who would be able to doubt that this is a positive outcome? Stress it clearly, select it as the main feature of your conclusions, and thus make the more disappointing findings disappear.
- Now that you are a fully-fledged pseudo-scientist who has produced one misleading or false positive result after the next, you may want a ‘proper’ confirmatory study of your pet-therapy. For this purpose run the same RCT over again, and again, and again. Eventually you want a meta-analysis of all RCTs ever published. As you are the only person who ever conducted studies on the bogus treatment in question, this should be quite easy: you pool the data of all your trials and, bob’s your uncle: a nice little summary of the totality of the data that shows beyond doubt that your therapy works. Now even your narrow-minded boss will be impressed.
These nine lessons can and should be modified to suit your particular situation, of course. Nothing here is written in stone. The one skill any pseudo-scientist must have is flexibility.
Every now and then, some smart arse is bound to attack you and claim that this is not rigorous science, that independent replications are required, that you are biased etc. etc. blah, blah, blah. Do not panic: either you ignore that person completely, or (in case there is a whole gang of nasty sceptics after you) you might just point out that:
- your work follows a new paradigm; the one of your critics is now obsolete,
- your detractors fail to understand the complexity of the subject and their comments merely reveal their ridiculous incompetence,
- your critics are less than impartial, in fact, most are bought by BIG PHARMA,
- you have a paper ‘in press’ that fully deals with all the criticism and explains how inappropriate it really is.
In closing, allow me a final word about publishing. There are hundreds of alternative medicine journals out there to chose from. They will love your papers because they are uncompromising promotional. These journals all have one thing in common: they are run by apologists of alternative medicine who abhor to read anything negative about alternative medicine. Consequently hardly a critical word about alternative medicine will ever appear in these journals. If you want to make double sure that your paper does not get criticised during the peer-review process (this would require a revision, and you don’t need extra work of that nature), you can suggest a friend for peer-reviewing it. In turn, you can offer to him/her that you do the same to him/her the next time he/she has an article to submit. This is how pseudo-scientists make sure that the body of pseudo-evidence for their pseudo-treatments is growing at a steady pace.