There are debates in acupuncture-related systematic reviews and meta-analyses on whether searching Chinese databases to get more Chinese-language studies may increase the risk of bias and overestimate the effect size, and whether the treatment effects of acupuncture differ between Chinese and non-Chinese populations.
For this meta-epidemiological study, a team of investigators searched the Cochrane Library from its inception until December 2021, and identified systematic reviews and meta-analyses with acupuncture as one of the interventions. Paired reviewers independently screened the reviews and extracted the information. They repeated the meta-analysis of the selected outcomes to separately pool the results of Chinese- and non-Chinese-language acupuncture studies and presented the pooled estimates as odds ratios (OR) with 95% confidence interval (CI). They calculated the Ratio of ORs (ROR) by dividing the OR of the Chinese-language trials by the OR of the non-Chinese-language trials, and the ROR by dividing the OR of trials addressing Chinese population by the OR of trials addressing non-Chinese population. The researchers thus explored whether the impact of a high risk of bias on the effect size differed between studies published in Chinese- and in non-Chinese-language, and whether the treatment effects of acupuncture differed between Chinese and non-Chinese populations.
The researchers identified 84 Cochrane acupuncture reviews involving 33 Cochrane groups, of which 31 reviews (37%) searched Chinese databases. Searching versus not searching Chinese databases significantly increased the contribution of Chinese-language literature both to the total number of included trials (54% vs. 15%) and the sample size (40% vs. 15%). When compared with non-Chinese-language trials, Chinese-language trials were associated with a larger effect size (pooled ROR 0.51, 95% CI 0.29 to 0.91). The researchers also observed a higher risk of bias in Chinese-language trials in blinding of participants and personnel (97% vs. 51%) and blinding of outcome assessment (93% vs. 47%). The higher risk of bias was associated with a larger effect estimate in both Chinese language (allocation concealment: high/unclear risk vs. low risk, ROR 0.43, 95% CI 0.21 to 0.87) and non-Chinese-language studies (blinding of participants and personnel: high/unclear risk vs. low risk, ROR 0.41, 95% CI 0.23 to 0.74). However, the team found no evidence that the higher risk of bias would increase the effect size of acupuncture in Chinese-language studies more often than in non-Chinese-language studies (the confidence intervals of all ROR in the high-risk group included 1, Table 3). The researchers further found acupuncture appeared to be more effective in Chinese than in non-Chinese populations.
The authors concluded that the findings of this study suggest the higher risk of bias may lead to an overestimation of the treatment effects of acupuncture but would not increase the treatment effects in Chinese-language studies more often than in other language studies. The difference in treatment effects of acupuncture was probably associated with differences in population characteristics.
The authors discuss that, although searching Chinese databases can substantially increase the number of eligible studies and sample size in acupuncture reviews, the potentially higher risk of bias is an argument that needs to be considered in the inclusion of Chinese-language studies. Patients, investigators, and guideline panels should be cautious when adopting evidence from acupuncture reviews where studies with a high risk of bias contributed with a high weight to the meta-analysis.
The authors observed larger treatment effects of acupuncture in Chinese-language studies than in studies published in other languages. Although the treatment effects of acupuncture tended to be greater in studies with a high risk of bias, this potential overestimation did not differ between studies published in Chinese and in other languages. In other words, the larger treatment effects in Chinese-language studies cannot be explained by a high risk of bias. Furthermore, our study found acupuncture to be more effective in Chinese populations than in other populations, which could at least partly explain the larger treatment effects observed in Chinese-language studies.
I feel that this analysis obfuscates more than it clarifies. As we have discussed often here, acupuncture studies by Chinese researchers (regardless of what language they are published in) hardly ever report negative results, and their findings are often fabricated. It, therefore, is not surprising that their effect sizes are larger than those of other trials.
The only sensible conclusion from this messy and regrettable situation, in my view, is to be very cautious and exclude them from systematic reviews.
The German Heilpraktiker (HP), a non-medically trained practitioner of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), has repeatedly been the subject of my posts. In a nutshell: the profession was created by the Nazis and was originally destined to disappear within one generation. But this did not happen, and today there are ~100 000 HPs who are allowed to treat almost any condition without mandatory training or experience. Many HP schools exist but you can also become an HP without formal training.
Now a report has been published by undercover journalists investigating these HP schools in Germany. Here I have summarized a few crucial passages for you (if you read German, I strongly recommend reading the original article):
There are more than 150 HP schools in Germany. On average, training costs several thousand euros. There is no uniform and state regulation for the training. The curricula are mostly created by the schools themselves.
In addition to medical and psychological content, the schools often offer seminars that are not based on scientific knowledge. The curricula sometimes include courses such as astrology, homeopathy, or so-called quantum healing. HP organizations give indeed training guidelines. However, these are not met by about 83% of the schools.
The students were isolated at the HP school from their environment and urged to break off contact with their families. “Without us you are nothing. That came so often and I then, unfortunately, believed in it, because I was alone. If I had had no one else from school, then I would really have been completely alone,” explains a former student in an interview. “During that time, I also thought for the first time: Are we in some kind of cult here?
The school’s principal rejects the cult accusation: “We have been confronted with the allegation that we are a cult for some time and have always dealt with it very openly because we are not a cult. The principal also denies other accusations made by former students, saying that the allegations of suggestion, coercion, compulsion, or sweeping statements are simply false. He said he would be happy to face them “in a personal conversation outside the public eye to answer their questions.”
In order to get to the bottom of the treatment methods, the reporter also had herself treated by the principal of the school in an undercover self-experiment. In the first session, she determined that the reporter’s sciatica had been passed on to her by her mother, which is why she should sever her ties with her. In the second session, she recommended that she no longer visit her cancer-stricken grandfather. When the principal learned that the ill grandpa was of the zodiac sign Cancer, she concluded, “Cancer gets cancer.” The cancer, she said, was due to the fact that he had done nothing for his soul. And further, the patient runs the risk of adopting the grandfather’s cancer symptoms when she visits him.
The Hamburg health authority, which is listed as a “supervisory authority” on the school’s homepage, explains in response to an inquiry that no official supervision exists for HP schools. To obtain permission for opening a school, no training is necessary. Neither possible training courses nor institutions offering such training courses are regulated by the state.
The journalist also asked the Federal Health Ministry whether it sees the need for action and legal control. The Ministry’s response was evasive: “If necessary,” the HP law should be reformed in the future.
This is shocking news for many Germans who believe that HPs are well-trained healthcare professionals. However, those who have read my recently published book cannot be surprised. Poor training is only one of a myriad of deficits of HPs. It is time that the government realizes that the current is unacceptable and endangers public health. It is time, in other words, that the government does something about the HP profession.
Following the death from cancer of a 14-year-old Carinthian girl, the Klagenfurt public prosecutor’s office has launched an investigation against the girl’s parents. In February this year, the 14-year-old was taken to a hospital in Graz, Austria, where she died a few days later from cancer. The hospital filed charges because the tumor had been treated incorrectly with so-called alternative medicine (SCAM).
Investigations are underway on suspicion of torturing or neglecting underage, younger, or defenseless persons. Currently, the accused and witnesses are being questioned. The parents’ lawyer, Alexander Todor-Kostic, stated that the accusations were without any basis and claimed that the 14-year-old girl had decided of her own free will against being treated with chemotherapy and surgery. The parents respected this, allowed her alternative treatment methods, and acted in accordance with the applicable legal situation.
The girl had developed cancer the previous year that was not detected. Instead of seeing conventional oncologists for a reliable diagnosis and effective treatments, the parents consulted private doctors. Instead of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, the girl had deliberately chosen “alternative treatments” herself, the lawyer stressed.
Even though the case has been reported in several Austrian papers, I did not succeed in finding further details about it. In particular, it is unclear what type of cancer the girl had been suffering from and what type of SCAMs she received.
The Austrian skeptic Christian Kreil commented: “Sugar pills in the pharmacies, homeopathic advanced training for doctors, a proliferation of energetics offering every conceivable bullshit … the dead girl is the logical result of this esoteric foolishness covered by politics and chambers.”
I am afraid that he might have a point here: as we have discussed repeatedly on this blog, Austria is currently particularly prone to misinformation about SCAM. Here are a few examples of previous blog posts on this subject:
- Austrian osteopaths seem to violate legal, ethical and moral rules and conventions
- An open letter to the President of the Austrian Medical Association aims to stop medical quackery
- Has the ‘Vienna Medical Association’ taken leave of its senses?
- When politicians become snake-oil salesmen
- Michael Frass’ research into homeopathy for cancer: “numerous breaches of scientific integrity”
- A well-known opponent of vaccination has died of COVID after self-treatment with MMS
- The case of a boy tortured to death with homeopathy
- A truly perplexing homeopath – is it time for an official investigation?
Misinformation about SCAM can be lethal. This is one of the reasons why responsible information is so very important.
Last September, THE GUARDIAN published an article about the HEAD OF THE ROYAL MEDICAL HOUSEHOLD. I did not know much about this position, so I informed myself:
The royal household has its own team of medics, who are on call 24 hours a day. They are led by Prof Sir Huw Thomas (a consultant at King Edward VII’s hospital [the private hospital in Marylebone often used by members of the royal family, including the late Prince Philip] and St Mary’s hospital in Paddington, and professor of gastrointestinal genetics at Imperial College London), head of the medical household and physician to the Queen – a title dating back to 1557. Thomas has been part of the team of royal physicians for 16 years and became the Queen’s personal physician in 2014. The role is not full-time and does not have fixed hours or sessions but Thomas is available whenever he is needed. Thomas received a knighthood in the 2021 new year honours, and was made Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) – a personal gift of the monarch. At the time of the honour, in an interview with Imperial College London, he said it had been a “busy couple of years in this role,” adding that he felt “very grateful to have been recognised for my service to date”. Thomas added that being the Queen’s personal physician was a “great honour” and “a very enjoyable and rewarding role”. He said: “The nature of the work is interesting because you see how a whole different organisation, the royal household, operates. You very much become part of that organisation and become the personal doctor to the principal people in it, who are patients just like other patients.” …
In previous generations the royal doctor has caused controversy. When the Queen’s grandfather King George V was in his final hours, Lord Dawson, the royal doctor with personal responsibility for the 70-year-old monarch issued a bulletin, declaring: “The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close.”
In 1986, four decades after Lord Dawson’s death, his diaries were made public – revealing that he had administered a lethal dose of morphine and cocaine to relieve the King’s pain, but also to ensure that the death could be announced in the morning edition of the Times, rather than “less appropriate evening journals”.
During the last few days, it was difficult to escape all the hoo-hah related to the coronation, and I wondered whether Charles has replaced Prof Thomas in his role as HEAD OF THE ROYAL MEDICAL HOUSEHOLD. It did not take long to find out. There even is a Wiki page on the subject! It provides a list of the recent heads:
List of Heads of the Medical Household
The Head of the Medical Household was first appointed in 1973.
- 1973–1981: Sir Richard Bayliss, KCVO MD FRCP MRCS
- 1981–1989: Sir John Batten, KCVO MD FRCP
- 1989–1993: Sir Anthony Dawson, KCVO MD FRCP
- 1993–2005: Sir Richard Thompson, KCVO DM PRCP
- 2005–2014: Professor Sir John Cunningham, KCVO BM BCh MA DM FRCP
- 2014–2022: Professor Sir Huw Thomas, KCVO MBBS MA PhD
- 2022 – to present: Dr Michael Dixon, LVO, OBE, MA, FRCGP, FRCP
Yes, Michael Dixon! I am sure this will be of interest. Michael Dixon used to be a friend and an occasional collaborator of mine. He has featured prominently in my memoir as well as in my biography of Charles. In addition, he has been the subject of numerous blog posts, e.g.:
- Today, integrative medicine is about to make history, says Dr. Michael Dixon
- My (most forgettable) paper with Dr Michael Dixon
- Boosting immunity against coronavirus? Dr Michael Dixon’s infinite wisdom on the pandemic
- Dr Michael Dixon seems to support homeopathy as a treatment for cancer
- Should homeopathy be blacklisted in general practice? Dr Michael Dixon’s profoundly misleading comments
- Johrei healing and the amazing Dr Dixon (presidential candidate for the RCGP)
- Dr Dixon’s safe herbal medicine
- Remember the ‘Foundation for Integrated Health’? Here is a good summary of its infamous history
- Prince Charles becomes patron of the ‘College of Medicine and Integrated Health’
- Uncharitable charities? The example of ‘YES TO LIFE’
- A treasure trove of fallacies, falsehoods and deceptions
I am sure that many of my readers would like to join me in wishing both Michael and Charles all the best in their new roles.
Seventeen years after S.K. lost his thyroid gland to cancer, he was promised a miracle by Kyung Chun Oh, an acupuncturist based in the Toronto area: acupuncture could regrow the vital organ. Oh told his patient it would only work if S.K. stopped the thyroid medication he’d been on since his surgery in 2003.
Within just a few months the patient had to be admitted to hospital with a life-threatening case of hypothyroidism. His thyroid had not regenerated. “It was fortunate that the patient did not die,” a college panel wrote in a disciplinary decision, suspending Oh’s license for 12 months. “Telling the patient that he should not take his thyroid medication was irresponsible and had disastrous repercussions.”
The panel found that Oh had engaged in professional misconduct in multiple ways:
- he had provided unnecessary treatment,
- he had failed to advise his patient to consult a medical doctor when he learned that S.K. was suffering
from symptoms that he knew or ought to have known indicated an urgent medical problem,
- he had treated a condition that he ought to have known that he did not have the knowledge, skills, or judgment to treat,
- he had failed to keep records in accordance with the standards of the profession,
- he had falsified a record relating to his practice,
- he had made a claim about a treatment that could not be supported by reasonable professional opinion (the claim that acupuncture combined with cessation of thyroid medicine could regrow a surgically removed thyroid gland, and the claim that S.K.’s thyroid gland was regrowing).
This is clearly an extreme incidence of misconduct and one would hope that such cases occur only rarely. But looking at the points listed above, I get the feeling that similar yet less severe cases of misconduct happen regularly in the practices of SCAM practitioners:
- most so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) treatments are unnecessary,
- SCAM practitioners refer patients only rarely to doctors,
- SCAM practitioners often treat conditions that they fail to understand adequately,
- SCAM practitioners frequently make unreasonable claims.
Assigning shelf life for homeopathic medicine is – according to the authors of this new, ground-breaking study – an important yet debatable issue. Therefore, the present article is aimed at investigating the problem from a Quantum Electrodynamics point of view and suggests ten years to be a moderate estimate of shelf life.
Data were obtained by the following methods:
- dynamic light scattering,
- atomic force microscopy,
- anomalous dielectric dispersion,
- electron spin resonance spectrometry.
The results show the formation of nanosized molecular assemblies. These water clusters containing millions to billions of water molecules, which are created by repeated dilution of aqueous solutions, have been photographed.
The authors draw the following conclusions:
- Ultra-high dilutions (UHD) contain dissipative structures.
- These structures are solute specific
- These structures are tremendously persistent
- Therapeutic values of UHDs are found to continue for a very long time (20-25 years)
Summarizing, we can say that the solute, which in this case is the starting material of homeopathic medicine, leaves its highly stable foot prints in the dissipative structure formed in the UHD solution of polar solvent. Unfortunately, no targeted experiments are done yet to find the exact shelf life. Hence, we wish to suggest that as the shelf life (with proper precautionary measures) of the homeopathic medicine are theoretically expected to be very prolonged and supported by clinical experience, let it be accepted as ten years till future targeted experiments give the exact value, which is expected to be higher than this suggested value.
Were these sensational findings published in a journal like NATURE or SCIENCE? No, they emerged in ‘HPATHY‘ (“the World’s No. 1 Homeopathy Website: Since 2001”). That is a great shame, I think, because they might thus not be awarded the Noble Prize that they clearly deserve.
Joking apart, the self life issue is evidently of some concern to homeopaths. Take this ‘study‘, for instance:
Background: Assignment of expiry date to homeopathic medicines is a subject of important concern to its pharmacists and practitioners. This study compares the regulatory framework for the expiry of homeopathic medicines in four countries: Brazil, Germany, India and the United States.
Findings: Different or no expiry periods are variously followed. Whereas Germany, with some exceptions, employs a maximum expiry of 5 years for both potencies and finished products, Brazil adopts a 5-year expiry for finished products only, potencies used in manufacture being exempted from an assigned expiry date. In India, all homeopathic medicines except dilutions and back potencies have a maximum of 5 years’ shelf-life, including those supplied to consumers. In the United States, homeopathic medicines are exempted from expiry dates.
Comments: There is neither a rational basis nor scientific evidence for assigning a short (3-5 years) expiry period for homeopathic medicines as followed in some of the countries, particularly in light of the fact that some studies have shown homeopathic medications to be effective even after 25 years. Homeopathic ultra-dilutions seem to contain non-material activity that is maintained over time and, since these exhibit different chemical properties compared to the original starting material, it is quite possible they possess properties of longer activity than conventional medicines. Regulators should acknowledge this feature and differentiate expiry of homeopathic medicinal products from that of conventional drugs.
For once, I almost agree with my homeopathic colleagues:
The activity of homeopathic ultra-dilutions is maintained over time.
However, we need to add just a little explanation to this statement:
This activity is zero.
Infant colic is a sensitive subject for chiropractors in the UK. In case you forgot, here is why. Consequently, the subject has featured regularly on this blog – and now there is new evidence:
A systematic review and meta-analysis were conducted on infantile colic studies that used SO-CALLED alternative medicine (SCAM) techniques as interventions. The outcome measures were hours spent crying and/or sleeping. The authors used the PubMed, Physiotherapy Evidence Database, Cochrane Library, Embase, Web of Science, Scopus, Osteopathic Medicine Digital Database, and Google Scholar databases from inception to 11 November 2022.
The methodological quality of the randomized control trials ranged from fair to high. The authors focused on five studies with 422 babies using the following interventions: cranial, visceral, or structural osteopathy or chiropractic manipulation or mobilization. These treatments failed to decrease the crying time (mean difference -1.08, 95% CI -2.17 to 0.01, I2 = 92%) and to increase the sleeping time (mean difference 1.11, 95% CI -0.20 to 2.41; I2: 91%), compared with no intervention. The quality of the evidence was rated as very low for both outcome measures.The authors concluded that osteopathy and chiropractic treatment failed to reduce the crying time and increase sleeping time in babies with infantile colic, compared to no additional intervention.The 5 included studies were the following:
- Miller JE, Newell D, Bolton JE. Efficacy of chiropractic manual therapy on infant colic: A pragmatic single-blind, randomized controlled trial. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2012;35(8):600–7.
- Castejón-Castejón M, Murcia-González MA, Todri J, Lena O, Chillón-Martínez R. Treatment of infant colic with craniosacral therapy. A randomized controlled trial. Complement Ther Med. 2022;71(February 2021).
- Olafsdottir E, Forshei S, Fluge G, Markestad T. Randomised controlled trial of infantile colic treated with chiropractic spinal manipulation. Arch Dis Child. 2001;84(2):138–41.
- Holm LV, Jarbøl DE, Christensen HW, Søndergaard J, Hestbæk L. The effect of chiropractic care on infantile colic: results from a single-blind randomised controlled trial. Chiropr Man Ther. 2021;29(1):1–11.
- Hayden C, Mullinger B. A preliminary assessment of the impact of cranial osteopathy for the relief of infantile colic. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2006;12(2):83–90.
This means that, in recent years, several new studies have emerged. I find this surprising: there is no plausible mechanism of action and the previous reviews were negative.
Why flog a dead horse?
But – come to think of it – this is a question one might ask about most of the research into cranial, visceral, or structural osteopathy or chiropractic manipulation or mobilization.
According to a German court ruling, the homeopathic remedy Meditonsin for colds may no longer be advertised with certain statements. The Higher Regional Court in Hamm, Germany made it clear that it shares the opinion of the Regional Court in Dortmund, which had sentenced the marketing company to desist from making statements such as “rapid and reliable reduction of the intensity of the typical cold symptoms”. Such statements falsely generate the impression that therapeutic success can be expected with certainty. The court made it clear that the company’s appeal against the previous ruling was unlikely to be successful. The company subsequently withdrew its appeal today – and the judgment is now legally binding.
The lawsuit filed by a consumer organization was thus successful. It had criticized several statements as unfair and inadmissible advertising. The Dortmund court shared this view in September 2022 – and according to the spokesman, the Higher Regional Court in Hamm now followed the argumentation of the lower court.
The statements that
- “good efficacy and tolerability were once again impressively confirmed by a pharmacy-based observational study”,
- and “all cold complaints showed a clear improvement in the course of the disease”,
were deemed to be misleading advertising. They must therefore be omitted, the ruling stated.
Meditonsin is currently being advertised as follows:
For support of the immune system at the first signs of a cold to help the body build up the defense against pathogens effectively.
In addition, conditions are made more difficult for the intruders – through an effective medicine: the well-known Meditonsin® supports your defenses and naturally fights the onset of inflammation of the ears, nose and throat with pure homeopathic ingredients.
If applied early and correctly, Meditonsin® helps to ensure that the typical unpleasant symptoms have no chance to develop. Because Meditonsin® is particularly well tolerated and protects the organism, it is for both adults and children alike – a family medicine in the best sense.
Meditonsin contains two homeopathic ingredients in the D5 and one in the D8 dilution. To the best of my knowledge, there is no sound evidence that the remedy is effective for anything.
Low back pain is the leading cause of years lived with disability globally, but most interventions have only short-lasting, small to moderate effects. Cognitive functional therapy (CFT) is an individualized approach that targets unhelpful pain-related cognitions, emotions, and behaviors that contribute to pain and disability. Movement sensor biofeedback might enhance treatment effects.
This study aimed to compare the effectiveness and economic efficiency of CFT, delivered with or without movement sensor biofeedback, with usual care for patients with chronic, disabling low back pain.
RESTORE was a randomized, three-arm, parallel-group, phase 3 trial, done in 20 primary care physiotherapy clinics in Australia. The researchers recruited adults (aged ≥18 years) with low back pain lasting more than 3 months with at least moderate pain-related physical activity limitation. Exclusion criteria were serious spinal pathology (eg, fracture, infection, or cancer), any medical condition that prevented being physically active, being pregnant or having given birth within the previous 3 months, inadequate English literacy for the study’s questionnaires and instructions, a skin allergy to hypoallergenic tape adhesives, surgery scheduled within 3 months, or an unwillingness to travel to trial sites. Participants were randomly assigned (1:1:1) via a centralized adaptive schedule to
- usual care,
- CFT only,
- CFT plus biofeedback.
The primary clinical outcome was activity limitation at 13 weeks, self-reported by participants using the 24-point Roland Morris Disability Questionnaire. The primary economic outcome was quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs). Participants in both interventions received up to seven treatment sessions over 12 weeks plus a booster session at 26 weeks. Physiotherapists and patients were not masked.
Between Oct 23, 2018, and Aug 3, 2020, the researchers assessed 1011 patients for eligibility. After excluding 519 (51·3%) ineligible patients, they randomly assigned 492 (48·7%) participants; 164 (33%) to CFT only, 163 (33%) to CFT plus biofeedback, and 165 (34%) to usual care. Both interventions were more effective than usual care (CFT only mean difference –4·6 [95% CI –5·9 to –3·4] and CFT plus biofeedback mean difference –4·6 [–5·8 to –3·3]) for activity limitation at 13 weeks (primary endpoint). Effect sizes were similar at 52 weeks. Both interventions were also more effective than usual care for QALYs, and much less costly in terms of societal costs (direct and indirect costs and productivity losses; –AU$5276 [–10 529 to –24) and –8211 (–12 923 to –3500).
The authors concluded that CFT can produce large and sustained improvements for people with chronic disabling low back pain at considerably lower societal cost than that of usual care.
This is a well-designed and well-reported study. It shows that CFT is better than usual care. The effect sizes are not huge and seem similar to many other treatments for chronic LBP, including the numerous so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) options that are available.
Faced with a situation where we have virtually dozens of therapies of similar effectiveness, what should we recommend to patients? I think this question is best and most ethically answered by accounting for two other important determinants of usefulness:
CFT is both low in risk and cost. So is therapeutic exercise. We would therefore need a direct comparison of the two to decide which is the optimal approach.
Until we have such a study, patients might just opt for one or both of them. What seems clear, meanwhile, is this: SCAM does not offer the best solution to chronic LBP. In particular, chiropractic, osteopathy, or acupuncture – which are neither low-cost nor risk-free – are, contrary to what some try so very hard to convince us of, sensible options.
Imagine you have caught a cold. You think it is not necessary to see a doctor, but you want to take something that helps your body to get better. What is your choice of remedy? There are many options provided by conventional medicine as well as by so-called alternative medicine (SCAM).
Many people opt for SCAM to address health issues or prevent diseases. Yet, the evidence for SCAMs is either lacking or controversial due to methodological weaknesses. Thus, practitioners and patients primarily rely on subjective references rather than credible evidence from systematic research.
This study investigated whether cognitive and personality factors explain the differences in belief in SCAM and homeopathy. The researchers investigated the robustness of 21 predictors when examined together to obtain insights into some key determinants of such beliefs in a sample of 599 participants (60% female, 18-81 years). A combination of predictors explained 20% of the variance in SCAM belief. These predictors were:
- ontological confusions,
- spiritual epistemology,
- death anxiety,
Approximately 21% of the variance in belief in homeopathy was explained by the following predictors:
- ontological confusions,
- illusory pattern perception,
- need for cognitive closure,
- need for cognition,
- death anxiety,
The authors concluded that some of the predictors from previous research replicated whereas others did not. Demographics and certain cognitive variables seem to be key determinants associated with beliefs in SCAM and homeopathy. Those individual differences and cognitive biases might result in a different perception of the world. However, variables related to abilities did not predict the beliefs. Thus, they might not be a result of inability but rather of ignorance.
Previous studies have shown that SCAM believers tend to believe in paranormal phenomena and conspiracies. I think that, in the discussion sections of this blog, we have ample evidence for this to be true. Paranormal beliefs are usually built on a magical worldview without reasoned review, which is shared by SCAM proponents. Such beliefs advocate emotional criteria for truth instead of data and logical considerations. Another belief, namely spirituality, is closely related to paranormal beliefs and religiosity and also associated with being a SCAM user. Lindeman found that SCAM belief could be best explained by intuitive reasoning, paranormal beliefs, and ontological confusions, defined as category mistakes in which properties of living and lifeless entities are mixed.
The authors point out that their results do not replicate previous findings that showed predictive value of certain cognitive variables such as cognitive style. An explanation could be that rather inattention to accuracy than the inability to consider empirical evidence fosters the beliefs. People might simply not be aware of the absence of evidence. Another possibility is that people are aware of the absence of evidence but are reluctant to engage with it. Practitioners and patients often claim “whatever works is good” or “the main thing is that it works”. Thus, it is ignorance rather than a lack of capacity to appropriately process the evidence.
The authors of this study are well aware of the limitations of their research:
“As with most cross-sectional studies using questionnaires, our results are based on self-reports. Additionally, single items were used for measuring belief strength. Even if multi-item measures often have advantages, single items can be advantageous in terms of practical benefits, e.g., adapting to subjects’ limited attention and time resources. There are several single item measures successfully used to measure diverse concepts including attitudes. Also, the variance on those items in our sample shows that participants were able to reflect their beliefs and rank them on the scale provided. Another limitation is that the findings are based on regression analyses, which do not provide insight into causality. Thus, the relationship remains correlational. Even if our sample was broader than in many other psychological studies—it was slightly unbalanced, especially in comparison to the German population. It over-represented educated individuals which may lead to an inadequate variation of the cognitive variables if we consider the relationship between cognition and education. However, education and the cognitive variables are only weakly correlated. Thus, it can be assumed that the unbalanced sample did not affect the distribution of cognitive variables to a great extent.”