MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

On this blog, we constantly discuss the shortcomings of clinical trials of (and other research into) alternative medicine. Yet, there can be no question that research into conventional medicine is often unreliable as well.

What might be the main reasons for this lamentable fact?

A recent BMJ article discussed 5 prominent reasons:

Firstly, much research fails to address questions that matter. For example, new drugs are tested against placebo rather than against usual treatments. Or the question may already have been answered, but the researchers haven’t undertaken a systematic review that would have told them the research was not needed. Or the research may use outcomes, perhaps surrogate measures, that are not useful.

Secondly, the methods of the studies may be inadequate. Many studies are too small, and more than half fail to deal adequately with bias. Studies are not replicated, and when people have tried to replicate studies they find that most do not have reproducible results.

Thirdly, research is not efficiently regulated and managed. Quality assurance systems fail to pick up the flaws in the research proposals. Or the bureaucracy involved in having research funded and approved may encourage researchers to conduct studies that are too small or too short term.

Fourthly, the research that is completed is not made fully accessible. Half of studies are never published at all, and there is a bias in what is published, meaning that treatments may seem to be more effective and safer than they actually are. Then not all outcome measures are reported, again with a bias towards those are positive.

Fifthly, published reports of research are often biased and unusable. In trials about a third of interventions are inadequately described meaning they cannot be implemented. Half of study outcomes are not reported.

END OF QUOTE

Apparently, these 5 issues are the reason why 85% of biomedical research is being wasted.

That is in CONVENTIONAL medicine, of course.

What about alternative medicine?

There is no question in my mind that the percentage figure must be even higher here. But do the same reasons apply? Let’s go through them again:

  1. Much research fails to address questions that matter. That is certainly true for alternative medicine – just think of the plethora of utterly useless surveys that are being published.
  2. The methods of the studies may be inadequate. Also true, as we have seen hundreds of time on this blog. Some of the most prevalent flaws include in my experience small sample sizes, lack of adequate controls (e.g. A+B vs B design) and misleading conclusions.
  3. Research is not efficiently regulated and managed. True, but probably not a specific feature of alternative medicine research.
  4. Research that is completed is not made fully accessible. most likely true but, due to lack of information and transparency, impossible to judge.
  5. Published reports of research are often biased and unusable. This is unquestionably a prominent feature of alternative medicine research.

All of this seems to indicate that the problems are very similar – similar but much more profound in the realm of alternative medicine, I’d say based on many years of experience (yes, what follows is opinion and not evidence because the latter is hardly available).

The thing is that, like almost any other job, research needs knowledge, skills, training, experience, integrity and impartiality to do it properly. It simply cannot be done well without such qualities. In alternative medicine, we do not have many individuals who have all or even most of these qualities. Instead, we have people who often are evangelic believers in alternative medicine, want to further their field by doing some research and therefore acquire a thin veneer of scientific expertise.

In my 25 years of experience in this area, I have not often seen researchers who knew that research is for testing hypotheses and not for trying to prove one’s hunches to be correct. In my own team, those who were the most enthusiastic about a particular therapy (and were thus seen as experts in its clinical application), were often the lousiest researchers who had the most difficulties coping with the scientific approach.

For me, this continues to be THE problem in alternative medicine research. The investigators – and some of them are now sufficiently skilled to bluff us to believe they are serious scientists – essentially start on the wrong foot. Because they never were properly trained and educated, they fail to appreciate how research proceeds. They hardly know how to properly establish a hypothesis, and – most crucially – they don’t know that, once that is done, you ought to conduct investigation after investigation to show that your hypothesis is incorrect. Only once all reasonable attempts to disprove it have failed, can your hypothesis be considered correct. These multiple attempts of disproving go entirely against the grain of an enthusiast who has plenty of emotional baggage and therefore cannot bring him/herself to honestly attempt to disprove his/her beloved hypothesis.

The plainly visible result of this situation is the fact that we have dozens of alternative medicine researchers who never publish a negative finding related to their pet therapy (some of them were admitted to what I call my HALL OF FAME on this blog, in case you want to verify this statement). And the lamentable consequence of all this is the fast-growing mountain of dangerously misleading (but often seemingly robust) articles about alternative treatments polluting Medline and other databases.

2 Responses to Medical research is often unreliable. But research into alternative medicine is much worse, and here is why

  • I don’t know if Richard Smith realises the irony of publishing such a paper. If there is so much poor research published, why do editors accept it, and reviewers approve it? It reminds me of his lecture to HealthWatch several years ago, when he stated that medical journals are a branch of pharmaceutical marketing. If they are, then he made a very good living out of it. The answer of course is that scientific publishing is big business and you have to follow the money.

    As you say, alt med research is much worse. Peer reviewers for a quack journal are yet more quacks. It would be very interesting to see a study of homeopathy that used Bayesian statistics. How would they derive the prior probability?

  • Matt Dillahunty, host of an atheist call-in webcast, sometimes asks his callers the simple question: “Are you interested in the truth?” I quite like this question, despite its confronting nature.
    For obvious reasons, it applies well to CAM believers as well. If you ask this question, you will no doubt always get the answer “yes, I am”. But as soon as the debates start on the definition of “truth”, how to set up falsifiable hypotheses for testing, collecting reproducible evidence and objectively interpreting the results, it turns out that pretty much all believers are NOT interested in the truth, but indeed want to reinforce the specific belief that makes them feel good instead, even if it becomes increasingly apparent that their position contradicts simple logical reasoning and basic natural laws.

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