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

critical thinking

One could define alternative medicine by the fact that it is used almost exclusively for conditions for which conventional medicine does not have an effective and reasonably safe cure. Once such a treatment has been found, few patients would look for an alternative.

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is certainly one such condition. Despite intensive research, we are still far from being able to cure it. It is thus not really surprising that AD patients and their carers are bombarded with the promotion of all sorts of alternative treatments. They must feel bewildered by the choice and all too often they fall victim to irresponsible quacks.

Acupuncture is certainly an alternative therapy that is frequently claimed to help AD patients. One of the first websites that I came across, for instance, stated boldly: acupuncture improves memory and prevents degradation of brain tissue.

But is there good evidence to support such claims? To answer this question, we need a systematic review of the trial data. Fortunately, such a paper has just been published.

The objective of this review was to assess the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture for treating AD. Eight electronic databases were searched from their inception to June 2014. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) with AD treated by acupuncture or by acupuncture combined with drugs were included. Two authors extracted data independently.

Ten RCTs with a total of 585 participants were included in a meta-analysis. The combined results of 6 trials showed that acupuncture was better than drugs at improving scores on the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE) scale. Evidence from the pooled results of 3 trials showed that acupuncture plus donepezil was more effective than donepezil alone at improving the MMSE scale score. Only 2 trials reported the incidence of adverse reactions related to acupuncture. Seven patients had adverse reactions related to acupuncture during or after treatment; the reactions were described as tolerable and not severe.

The Chinese authors of this review concluded that acupuncture may be more effective than drugs and may enhance the effect of drugs for treating AD in terms of improving cognitive function. Acupuncture may also be more effective than drugs at improving AD patients’ ability to carry out their daily lives. Moreover, acupuncture is safe for treating people with AD.

Anyone reading this and having a friend or family member who is affected by AD will think that acupuncture is the solution and warmly recommend trying this highly promising option. I would, however, caution to remain realistic. Like so very many systematic reviews of acupuncture or other forms of TCM that are currently flooding the medical literature, this assessment of the evidence has to be taken with more than just a pinch of salt:

  • As far as I can see, there is no biological plausibility or mechanism for the assumption that acupuncture can do anything for AD patients.
  • The abstract fails to mention that the trials were of poor methodological quality and that such studies tend to generate false-positive findings.
  • The trials had small sample sizes.
  • They were mostly not blinded.
  • They were mostly conducted in China, and we know that almost 100% of all acupuncture studies from that country draw positive conclusions.
  • Only two trials reported about adverse effects which is, in my view, a sign of violation of research ethics.

As I already mentioned, we are currently being flooded with such dangerously misleading reviews of Chinese primary studies which are of such dubious quality that one could do probably nothing better than to ignore them completely.

Isn’t that a bit harsh? Perhaps, but I am seriously worried that such papers cause real harm:

  • They might motivate some to try acupuncture and give up conventional treatments which can be helpful symptomatically.
  • They might prompt some families to spend sizable amounts of money for no real benefit.
  • They might initiate further research into this area, thus drawing money away from research into much more promising avenues.

IT IS HIGH TIME THAT RESEARCHERS START THINKING CRITICALLY, PEER-REVIEWERS DO THEIR JOB PROPERLY, AND JOURNAL EDITORS STOP PUBLISHING SUCH MISLEADING ARTICLES.

If you talk to advocates of homeopathy, you are bound to hear claims that are false or misleading; in fact, you hear them so regularly that you might begin to doubt the truth. For those who have such doubts or are in need of some correct counter-arguments, I have listed here those 12 bogus claims which, in my experience, are most common together with short, suitable, and factual rebuttals.

1) THERE IS NOTHING MYSTERIOUS ABOUT HOMEOPATHY’S MODE OF ACTION, IT WORKS LIKE VACCINATIONS

This argument is used by enthusiasts in response the fact that most homeopathic remedies are too highly diluted to have pharmacological effects. Vaccines are also highly diluted and they are, of course, very effective; therefore, so the bogus notion, there is nothing odd about homeopathy.

The argument is wrong on several levels; the easiest way to refute, I think, it is to point out that vaccines contain measurable amounts of material and lead to measurable changes in the immune system. By contrast, the typical homeopathic remedy (beyond the C12 potency) contains not a single molecule of an active substance and leads to no measurable changes in any system.

2) SIGNIFICANTLY MORE CONTROLLED CLINICAL TRIALS OF HOMEOPATHY ARE POSITIVE THAN NEGATIVE

Several websites of homeopathic organisations make this claim and even provide simple statistics to back it up. Consequently, many homeopathy fans have adopted it.

The statistics they present show that x % of studies are positive, y % are negative and z % are neutral; the whole point is that x is larger than y. The percentage figures may even be correct but they rely on the spurious definitions used: positive = superior to placebo, negative = placebo superior to homeopathy, neutral = no difference between homeopathy and placebo. The latter category was created so that homeopathy comes out trumps.

For all intents and purposes, a study where the experimental treatment is no better than placebo is not a study neutral but a negative result. Thus the negative category in such statistics must be y + z which is, of course, larger than x. In other words, the majority of trials is, in truth, negative.

3) HOMEOPATHY IS SUPPORTED BY NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS

I don’t know of a single Nobel Prize winner who has stated or implied that homeopathy works better than a placebo. Some have tried to find a mechanism of action for homeopathy by doing some basic research and have published theories about it. None of those has been accepted by science.

And if there ever should be a Nobel Prize winner or similarly brilliant person who supports homeopathy, this would merely show that even bright individuals can make mistakes!

4) HOMEOPATHY IS SAFE

Tell that to the child that has just been reported to have died because her parents used homeopathy for an ear infection which (could have been easily treated with antibiotics but) degenerated into a brain abscess with homeopathic therapy. There are many more such tragic cases than I care to remember.

The risks of homeopathy are, of course, minor compared to many conventional treatments, but the risk/benefit balance of homeopathy can never be positive because, unlike those high risk conventional treatments, it has no benefit.

5) HOMEOPATHY DOES NOT LEND ITSELF TO BEING TESTED IN CLINICAL TRIALS

The best way to disprove this argument is to point out that ~ 250 controlled clinical trials are currently available. Every homeopath on the planet boasts about clinical trials – provided they are positive.

6) HOMEOPATHY WORKS VIA QUANTUM ENTANGLEMENT

I do not understand quantum mechanics and, I suspect, neither do the homeopaths who use this argument. But physicists who do understand this subject well are keen to stress that homeopathy cannot be explained in this way.

7) THERE IS NO PROOF THAT HOMEOPATHY DOES NOT WORK

The absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence, homeopaths like to exclaim. And they are, of course, correct! However, they forget that, science cannot prove a negative and that, in routine health care, we do not even look for a proof of ineffectiveness. We use those treatments that have a positive proof of effectiveness – everything else is irresponsible.

8) EVEN IF HOMEOPATHY WERE JUST A PLACEBO, IT STILL HELPS PATIENTS AND IS THEREFORE A USEFUL TREATMENT

It is true, of course, that placebo effects can help patients. But it is not true that, for generating a placebo response, we need a placebo. If a clinician administers an effective treatment with compassion, the patient will benefit from a placebo response plus from the specific effects of the treatment. Only giving placebos is therefore tantamount to cheating the patient.

9) THERE IS A WORLDWIDE CONSPIRACY AGAINST HOMEOPATHY

In a way, this argument merely suggests that homeopathic remedies are ineffective in treating paranoia. I have not ever seen a jot of evidence for it – and neither can anyone who uses this claim produce any.

10) YOU NEED TO BE A HOMEOPATH TO BE ABLE TO UNDERSTAND AND ADEQUATELY JUDGE THE VALUE OF HOMEOPATHY

With this notion, homeopaths want to claim that the critics of homeopathy are incompetent. It is like saying that only people who believe in god are allowed to criticise religion. By definition, homeopaths are believers, and therefore they are unlikely to be free of bias when judging the value of homeopathy. Homeopathy is a health technology that must be evaluated like all other health technologies: by independent scientists who know their job.

11) HOMEOPATHY HAS BEEN PROVEN TO WORK FOR LITTLE CHILDREN AND ANIMALS

The argument here is that animals and children cannot possibly respond to placebo. Therefore homeopathy must be more than a placebo.

This notion is twice wrong. Firstly, both animals and children can respond to placebo, if only ‘by proxy’, i.e. via their carers. Secondly, if we consider the totality of the reliable data, we find that neither for children nor for animals is the evidence convincingly positive.

12) HOMEOPATHY HAS BEEN USED VERY SUCCESSFULLY IN MAJOR EPIDEMICS, AND THAT FACT IS PROOF ENOUGH FOR ITS EFFICACY

Yes, there are some rather fascinating historical accounts which homeopaths interpret in this fashion. But if we look a little closer, we invariably find explanations which are much more plausible than the assumption of homeopathy’s effectiveness. Epidemiological observations of this nature can almost never establish cause and effect, and the clinical outcome could have been due to a myriad of confounders unrelated to homeopathy.

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed: I recently published a ‘memoir‘.

Of all the books I have written, this one was by far the hardest. It covers ground that I felt quite uncomfortable with. At the same time, I felt compelled to write it. For over 5 years I kept at it, revised it, re-revised it, re-conceived the outline, abandoned the project altogether only to pick it up again.

When it eventually was finished, we had to find a suitable title. This was far from easy; my book is not a book about alternative medicine, it is a book about all sorts of things that have happened to me, including alternative medicine. Eventually we settled for A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND. A MEMOIR OF SEARCHING FOR TRUTH AND FINDING TROUBLE. This seemed to describe its contents quite well, I thought (the German edition is entitled NAZIS, NADELN UND INTRIGEN. ERINNERUNGEN EINES SKEPTIKERS which indicates why it was so difficult to put the diverse contents into a short title).

Then a further complication presented itself: at the very last minute, my publisher insisted that the text had to be checked by libel lawyers. This was not only painful and expensive, following their advice and thus changing or omitting passages also took some of the ‘edge’ off it.

Earlier this year, my ‘memoir’ was finally published; to say that I was nervous about how it might be received must be the understatement of the year. As it turned out, it received so many reviews that today I feel deeply humbled (and very proud), particularly as they were all full of praise and appreciation. In case you are interested, I provide some quotes and the links to the full text reviews below.

[Ah, yes! Some people will surely claim that I did all this for the money. To those of my critics, I respond by saying that, had I done paper rounds or worked as a gardener or a window-cleaner during all the time I spent on this book, I would today be considerably better off. As it stands, the costs for the libel read are not yet covered by the income generated through the sales of this book.]

AND HERE ARE THE PROMISED QUOTES

Times Higher Education Book of the Week

Times Higher Education – Helen Bynum, Jan 29, 2015

“[F]or all its trenchant arguments about evidence-based science, the second half of A Scientist in Wonderland remains a very human memoir, and Ernst’s account of the increasingly personal nature of the attacks he faced when speaking to CAM practitioners and advocacy groups is disturbing… Ben Goldacre’s 2012 book Bad Pharma created a storm via its exposure of the pharmaceutical industry’s unhealthy links with mainstream medicine. Ernst’s book deserves to do the same for the quackery trading under the name of complementary and alternative medicine.”

Spectator article

The Spectator – Nick Cohen, Jan 31, 2015

“If you want a true measure of the man, buy Edzard Ernst’s memoir A Scientist in Wonderland, which the Imprint Academic press have just released. It would be worth reading [even] if the professor had never been the victim of a royal vendetta.”

The Bookbag review

The Bookbag – Sue Magee, Jan 28, 2015

“Ernst isn’t just an academic – he’s also an accomplished writer and skilled communicator. He puts over some quite complex ideas without resorting to jargon and I felt informed without ever struggling to understand, despite being a non-scientist. I was pulled into the story of his life and read most of the book in one sitting… I was impressed by what Ernst had to say and the way in which he said it.”

Science-Based Medicine review

Science-Based Medicine – Harriet Hall, Feb 3, 2015

“Edzard Ernst is one of those rare people who dare to question their own beliefs, look at the evidence without bias, and change their minds… In addition to being a memoir, Dr. Ernst’s book is a paean to science… He shows how misguided ideas, poor reasoning, and inaccurate publicity have contributed to the spread of alternative medicine… This is a well-written, entertaining book that anyone would enjoy reading and that advocates of alternative medicine should read: they might learn a thing or two about science, critical thinking, honesty, and the importance of truth.”

Nature review

Nature – Barbara Kiser, Feb 5, 2015

“[T]his ferociously frank autobiography… [is] a clarion call for medical ethics.”

Times review

The Times – Robbie Millen, Feb 9, 2015

A Scientist in Wonderland is a rather droll, quick read… [and] it’s an effective antidote to New Age nonsense, pseudo-science and old-fashioned quackery.”

AntiCancer review

AntiCancer.org.uk – Pan Pantziarka, Feb 19, 2015

“It should be required reading for everyone interested in medicine – without exception.”

Mail Online review

Mail Online – Katherine Keogh, Feb 28, 2015

“In his new book, A Scientist In Wonderland: A Memoir Of Searching For Truth And Finding Trouble, no one from the world of alternative medicine is safe from Professor Edzard Ernst’s firing line.”

James Randi Educational Foundation review

James Randi Educational Foundation – William M. London, Mar 9, 2015

“The writing in A Scientist in Wonderland is clear and engaging. It combines good storytelling with important insights about medicine, science, and analytic thinking. Despite all the troubles Ernst encountered, I found his story to be inspirational. I enthusiastically recommend the book to scientists, health professionals, and laypersons who like to see nonsense and mendacity exposed to the light of reason.”

The Pharmaceutical Journal review

The Pharmaceutical Journal – Andrews Haynes, Mar 26, 2015

“This engaging book is a memoir by a medical researcher whose passion for discovering the truth about untested therapies eventually forced him out of his job… [This] highly readable book concentrates on fact rather than emotion. It should be required reading for anyone interested in medical research.”

Skepticat review

Skepticat – Maria MacLachlan, Apr 18, 2015

A Scientist in Wonderland is more than an autobiography and I’m not sure I can do justice to the riches to be found in its pages. Sometimes it’s reminiscent of a black comedy, other times it’s almost too painful to read.”

Spiked! review

Spiked! – Robin Walsh ,May 15, 2015

“Ernst’s book is a reminder of the need to have the courage to tell the truth as you understand it, and fight your corner against those in authority, while never losing a compassion for patients and a commitment to winning the debate. ”

Australasian Science review

Australasian Science – Loretta Marron, Jun 10, 2015

“Edzard Ernst is a living legend… The book is easy to read and hard to put down. I would particularly recommend it to anyone, with an open mind, who is interested in the truth or otherwise of CAM.”

Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Review

JRSM – Michael Baum, June 2015

“This is a deeply moving and deeply disturbing book yet written with a light touch, humour and self-deprecation.”

THE BUFFALO NEWS

These enlightening books await summer readers. 21 June 2015

“Medical researcher Edzard Ernst spent most of his career stepping on toes. He first exposed the complicity of the German medical profession in the Nazi genocide. Then he accepted appointment as the world’s first chairman of alternative medicine at England’s University of Exeter. There he studied systematically the claims of the proponents of complementary medicine, a field dominated by evangelic and enthusiastic promoters, including Prince Charles. Needless to say, they did not take kindly to his exposures of many of their widely accepted therapies. His book, “A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble,” is a charming account of a committed life.”

Skeptical Inquirer

http://www.csicop.org/si/show/truth_trouble_and_research_exposing_alt_med?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Chris French

“The book is first and foremost a memoir. Even those of us who have long followed Ernst’s research may well find a few surprises here…[Ernst] did not quite behave as many people expected him to after taking up his post in Exeter. He was committed to carrying out high-quality research into the efficacy and safety of CAM, not simply promoting its use in an uncritical manner. This admirable attitude won him much respect in the eyes of fellow scientists and the wider skeptical community.

Would you believe it? This is the 500th post on this blog!

When I started this blog less than three years ago, I would have never thought that I would have fun doing this; and I would not have expected to get hooked on it. In fact, it needed even a bit of arm twisting to try it, and I have to thank Alan for doing it and everything else. Without him, this blog would surely not exist.

With my very first post, I promised that my blog is not going to provide just another critique of alternative medicine; it is going to be different, I hope. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: I have researched alternative medicine for two decades. My team and I have conducted about 40 clinical trials and published more than 100 systematic reviews of alternative medicine. We were by far the most productive research unit in this area. For 14 years, we hosted an annual international conference for researchers in this field. I know many of the leading investigators personally, and I understand their way of thinking. I have rehearsed every possible argument for or against alternative medicine dozens of times.

In a nutshell, I am not someone who judges alternative medicine from the outside; I come from within the field. Arguably, I am the only researcher in this area who is willing [or capable?] to state publicly what is wrong with alternative medicine. This is perhaps one of the advantages of being an emeritus professor!

I am not sure whether I lived up to this promise – but I did try. And one thing is for sure, it was an eventful exercise. The blog now has ~ 20 000 readers every week; we had something like 15 000 comments; and some posts were re-tweeted several hundred times.

This seems to indicate that there is a need for a forum of this nature. Alternative medicine continues to be popular but critical thinking is not something that this field is blessed with. On the contrary, the misinformation on this subject is simply monstrous and seems to be growing every day. Factual and reliable information is very hard to come by, and therefore I feel that I am doing an important educational job here.

It’s a job which I certainly could not do alone. I therefore like to take this occasion to thank everyone who made my blog what it is today. Alan has already been mentioned but the many commentators deserve a big THANKS too – regardless of whether I agree or disagree with you, your comments make it all worth my while.

Recently, I was sent an interesting press release; here it is in full:

A new study has shed light on how cancer patients’ attitudes and beliefs drive the use of complementary and alternative medicine. Published early online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, the findings may help hospitals develop more effective and accessible integrative oncology services for patients.

Although many cancer patients use complementary and alternative medicine, what drives this usage is unclear. To investigate, a team led by Jun Mao, MD and Joshua Bauml, MD, of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, conducted a survey-based study in their institution’s thoracic, breast, and gastrointestinal medical oncology clinics.

Among 969 participants surveyed between June 2010 and September 2011, patients who were younger, those who were female, and those who had a college education tended to expect greater benefits from complementary and alternative medicine. Nonwhite patients reported more perceived barriers to the use of complementary and alternative medicine compared with white patients, but their expectations concerning the medicine’s benefits were similar. Attitudes and beliefs about complementary and alternative medicine were much more likely to affect patients’ use than clinical and demographic characteristics.

“We found that specific attitudes and beliefs — such as expectation of therapeutic benefits, patient-perceived barriers regarding cost and access, and opinions of patients’ physician and family members — may predict patients’ use of complementary and alternative medicine following cancer diagnoses,” said Dr. Mao. “We also found that these beliefs and attitudes varied by key socio-demographic factors such as sex, race, and education, which highlights the need for a more individualized approach when clinically integrating complementary and alternative medicine into conventional cancer care.”

The researchers noted that as therapies such as acupuncture and yoga continue to demonstrate clinical benefits for reducing pain, fatigue, and psychological distress, the field of integrative oncology is emerging to bring complementary and alternative medicine together with conventional care to improve patient outcomes. “Our findings emphasize the importance of patients’ attitudes and beliefs about complementary and alternative medicine as we seek to develop integrative oncology programs in academic medical centers and community hospitals,” said Dr. Bauml. “By aligning with patients’ expectations, removing unnecessary structural barriers, and engaging patients’ social and support networks, we can develop patient-centered clinical programs that better serve diverse groups of cancer patients regardless of sex, race, and education levels.”

And here is the abstract of the actual article:

BACKGROUND:

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) incorporates treatments used by cancer survivors in an attempt to improve their quality of life. Although population studies have identified factors associated with its use, to the best of the authors knowledge, assessment of why patients use CAM or the barriers against its use have not been examined to date.

METHODS:

The authors conducted a cross-sectional survey study in the thoracic, breast, and gastrointestinal medical oncology clinics at an academic cancer center. Clinical and demographic variables were collected by self-report and chart abstraction. Attitudes and beliefs were measured using the validated Attitudes and Beliefs about CAM (ABCAM) instrument. This instrument divides attitudes and beliefs into 3 domains: expected benefits, perceived barriers, and subjective norms.

RESULTS:

Among 969 participants (response rate, 82.7%) surveyed between June 2010 and September 2011, patient age ≤65 years, female sex, and college education were associated with a significantly greater expected benefit from CAM (P<.0001 for all). Nonwhite patients reported more perceived barriers to CAM use compared with white patients (P<.0001), but had a similar degree of expected benefit (P = .76). In a multivariate logistic regression analysis, all domains of the ABCAM instrument were found to be significantly associated with CAM use (P<.01 for all) among patients with cancer. Attitudes and beliefs regarding CAM explained much more variance in CAM use than clinical and demographic variables alone.

CONCLUSIONS:

Attitudes and beliefs varied by key clinical and demographic characteristics, and predicted CAM use. By developing CAM programs based upon attitudes and beliefs, barriers among underserved patient populations may be removed and more patient centered care may be provided.

Why do I find this remarkable?

The article was published in the Journal CANCER, one of the very best publications in oncology. One would therefore expect that it contributes meaningfully to our knowledge. Remarkably, it doesn’t! Virtually every finding from this survey had been known or is so obvious that it does not require research, in my view. The article is an orgy of platitudes, and the press release is even worse.

But this is not what irritates me most with this paper. The aspect that I find seriously bad about it is its general attitude: it seems to accept that alternative therapies are a good thing for cancer patients which we should all welcome with open arms. The press release even states that, as therapies such as acupuncture and yoga continue to demonstrate clinical benefits for reducing pain, fatigue, and psychological distress, the field of integrative oncology is emerging to bring complementary and alternative medicine together with conventional care to improve patient outcomes.

I might be a bit old-fashioned, but I would have thought that, before we accept treatments into clinical routine, we ought to demonstrate that they generate more good than harm. Should we not actually show beyond reasonable doubt that patients’ outcomes are improved before we waffle about the notion? Is it not our ethical duty to analyse and think critically? If we fail to do that, we are, I think, nothing other than charlatans!

This article might be a mere triviality – if it were not symptomatic of what we are currently witnessing on a truly grand scale in this area. Integrative oncology seems fast to deteriorate into a paradise for pseudoscience and quacks.

Nonspecific neck pain is extremely common, often disabling, and very costly for us all. If we believe those who earn their money with them, effective treatments for the condition abound. One of these therapies is osteopathy. But does osteopathic manipulation/mobilisation really work?

The objective of a recent review (the link I originally put in here does not work, I will supply a new one as soon as the article becomes available on Medline) was to find out. Specifically, the authors wanted to assess the effectiveness of osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) in the management of chronic nonspecific neck pain regarding pain, functional status, and adverse events.

Electronic literature searches unrestricted by language were performed in March 2014. A manual search of reference lists and personal communication with experts identified additional studies. Only randomized clinical trials (RCTs) were included, and studies of specific neck pain or single treatment techniques were excluded. Primary outcomes were pain and functional status, and secondary outcome was adverse events.

Studies were independently reviewed using a standardized data extraction form. Mean difference (MD) or standard mean difference (SMD) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs) and overall effect size were calculated for primary outcomes. GRADE was used to assess quality of the evidence.

Of 299 identified articles, 18 were evaluated and 15 excluded. The three included RCTs had low risk of bias. The results show that moderate-quality evidence suggested OMT had a significant and clinically relevant effect on pain relief (MD: -13.04, 95% CI: -20.64 to -5.44) in chronic nonspecific neck pain, and moderate-quality evidence suggested a non-significant difference in favour of OMT for functional status (SMD: -0.38, 95% CI: -0.88 to -0.11). No serious adverse events were reported.

The authors concluded that, based on the three included studies, the review suggested clinically relevant effects of OMT for reducing pain in patients with chronic nonspecific neck pain. Given the small sample sizes, different comparison groups, and lack of long-term measurements in the few available studies, larger, high-quality randomized controlled trials with robust comparison groups are recommended.

Yet again I am taken aback by several things simultaneously:

  • the extreme paucity of RCTs, particularly considering that neck pain is one of the main indication for osteopaths,
  • the rather uncritical text by the authors,
  • the nonsensical conclusions.

Let me offer my own conclusions which are, I hope, a little more realistic:

GIVEN THE PAUCITY OF THE RCTs AND THEIR SMALL SAMPLE SIZES, IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO CLAIM THAT OMT FOR NONSPECIFIC NECK PAIN IS AN EVIDENCE-BASED APPROACH

All this recent attention to Charles’ amazing letters and unconstitutional meddling made me think quite a lot about STUPIDITY. Thus I came across the writings of Carlo Maria Cipolla who seemed to have thought deeply about human stupidity. He described “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” and viewed stupid people as a group of individuals who are more powerful by far than even major organizations. I liked his approach; it made me think of Prince Charles, strangely enough.

It might be interesting, I concluded, to analyse Charles’ actions against Cipolla’s 5 laws.

Here are Cipolla’s 5 basic laws of stupidity:

  1. Always and inevitably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a given person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic possessed by that person.
  3. A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people; they constantly forget that at any time anywhere, and in any circumstance, dealing with or associating themselves with stupid individuals invariably constitutes a costly error.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.

How does Charles measure up against these criteria, I ask myself? Let’s go through the 5 ‘laws’ one by one.

1)

Charles is just a ‘study of one’, so this point is irrelevant as far as he is concerned. However, he surrounds himself with yes-men of the Dixon-type (I have blogged about him here and here and here), and this evidence seems to confirm this point at least to a certain degree.

2)

Charles had a good education, he is rich, he has influence (just read my previous post on how he made his influence felt in Exeter), and he has many other characteristics which make him unlikely to appear stupid. So, this point seems to be spot on.

3)

Read my previous post and you will agree that this ‘law’ applies to Charles quite perfectly.

4)

Yes, I did underestimate Charles influence. In particular, I did not appreciate the importance and impact of the KNIGHTHOOD STARVATION SYNDROME.

5)

I think that this is a valid point. His ‘black spider memos’ reveal that he is obsessed with integrating bogus treatments into the NHS to the inevitable detriment of public health. And what could be more dangerous than that?

CONCLUSION: FROM THIS BRIEF ANALYSIS, IT SEEMS AS THOUGH THE ‘FIVE BASIC LAWS OF STUPIDITY’ ARE CONFIRMED BY THE ACTIONS OF PRINCE CHARLES

The purpose of this study was to evaluate the impact of early and guideline adherent physical therapy for low back pain on utilization and costs within the Military Health System (MHS).

Patients presenting to a primary care setting with a new complaint of LBP from January 1, 2007 to December 31, 2009 were identified from the MHS Management Analysis and Reporting Tool. Descriptive statistics, utilization, and costs were examined on the basis of timing of referral to physical therapy and adherence to practice guidelines over a 2-year period. Utilization outcomes (advanced imaging, lumbar injections or surgery, and opioid use) were compared using adjusted odds ratios with 99% confidence intervals. Total LBP-related health care costs over the 2-year follow-up were compared using linear regression models.

753,450 eligible patients with a primary care visit for LBP between 18-60 years of age were considered. Physical therapy was utilized by 16.3% (n = 122,723) of patients, with 24.0% (n = 17,175) of those receiving early physical therapy that was adherent to recommendations for active treatment. Early referral to guideline adherent physical therapy was associated with significantly lower utilization for all outcomes and 60% lower total LBP-related costs.

The authors concluded that the potential for cost savings in the MHS from early guideline adherent physical therapy may be substantial. These results also extend the findings from similar studies in civilian settings by demonstrating an association between early guideline adherent care and utilization and costs in a single payer health system. Future research is necessary to examine which patients with LBP benefit early physical therapy and determine strategies for providing early guideline adherent care.

These are certainly interesting data. Because LBP is such a common condition, it costs us all dearly. Measures to reduce this burden in suffering and expense are urgently needed. The question is whether early referral to a physiotherapist is such a measure. The present data show that this is possible but they do not prove it.

I applaud the authors for realising this point and discussing it at length: The results of this study should be examined in light of the following limitations. Given the favorable natural history of LBP, many patients improve regardless of treatment. Those referred to physical therapy early are also more likely to have a shorter duration of pain, thus the potential for selection bias to have influenced these results. We accounted for a number of co-morbidities available in the data set and excluded patients with prior visits for LBP to mitigate against this possibility. However, the retrospective observational design of this study imposes limitations on extending the associations we observed to causation. Although we attempted to exclude patients with a specific spinal pathology, it is possible that a few patients may have been inadvertently included in the data set, in which case advanced imaging may be indicated. Additionally, although our results support that early physical therapy which adheres to practice guidelines may be less resource intense, we cannot conclude without patient-centered clinical outcomes (i.e., pain, function, disability, satisfaction, etc.) that the care was more cost effective. Further, it may be that the standard we used to judge adherence to practice guidelines (CPT codes) was not sufficiently sensitive to determine whether care is consistent with clinical practice guidelines. We also did not account for indirect or out-of-pocket costs for treatments such as complementary care, which is common for LBP. However, it is likely that the observed effects on total costs would have been even larger had these costs been considered.

I was originally alerted to this paper through a tweet claiming that these results demonstrate that chiropractic has an important role in LBP. However, the study does not even imply such a conclusion. It is, of course, true that many chiropractors use physical therapies. But they do not have the same training as physiotherapists and they tend to use spinal manipulations far more frequently. Virtually every LBP-patient consulting a chiropractor would be treated with spinal manipulations. As this approach is neither based on sound evidence nor free of risks, the conclusion, in my view, cannot be to see chiropractors for LBP; it must be to consult a physiotherapist.

If I tell you that I just read a book by a homeopath writing about homeopathy, would you doubt my sanity? But I did, and I read it in one session with great interest. The book is (in German) by Natalie Grams (perhaps I should mention that I had never heard of her before Springer sent me her book), a German doctor; it is entitled HOMOEOPATHIE NEU GEDACHT (Homeopathy newly considered). I liked it a lot.

The author discusses in some detail why basically everything homeopaths believe in is erroneous. You might think: so what, we all knew that. True, we did, but she then she concludes that homeopathy has still some value as some sort of psychotherapy. The remedy is effective because the consultation with a homeopath gives it a ‘meaning’ which is tailor-made for each patient. Now you will think: that this is hardly original, others have considered this before. And you are, of course, correct again.

So why did this book fascinate me? Mostly because, in a few passages, Natalie Grams tells her very personal story how she matured from an enthusiast to rationalist. This could be reminiscent of my own life, but it isn’t (and by no means do I agree with everything doctor Grams writes). I found myself in a homeopathic hospital directly after medical school, became a homeopath (of sorts), later I learnt to think critically and researched homeopathy. As a scientist, when the evidence was squarely negative, I said so loud and clear (I published the whole story with all the relevant details here).

Natalie Grams studied medicine and seemed to have become disenchanted with the lack of humanity in mainstream medicine (as a clinician, I often felt this too but always concluded that the solution was not to turn away from medicine but to re-introduce more humanity into it). Doctor Grams then experienced serious health problems which were cured/alleviated by homeopathy. This made her look into the subject a little closer. She decided to do the necessary courses, uncritically adopted most of what she was told by die-hard homeopaths and eventually fulfilled her dream: she opened her own private practice as a homeopath. In other words, she dropped out of real medicine and into homeopathy, while I, in a way, did the reverse.

Doctor Grams’ practice seemed to have been successful; many of her patients, even some with serious conditions, got better. All she had been told about homeopathy seemed to get confirmed in her clinical routine. Homeopaths, like most clinicians, remember their success stories and tend to forget their failures. If this happens over and over during an entire life-time, the last doubts a budding homeopath may have once had dissolve into thin air. The result is a clinician who is utterly convinced that like cures like and high dilutions are powerful medicines because water has a memory.

Up to this point, Dr Grams career is a textbook example of a homeopath who would bet on the life of her children that homeopathy is correct and science is wrong. The world is full of them, and I have personally met many. They are usually kind, empathetic and dedicated clinicians. But they are also totally impervious to reason. They have their experience and NOBODY is allowed to question it. If you do, you are no longer their friend.

This is where the typical story of homeopaths ends… and they happily lied ever after (to themselves, their patients and everyone else). Not so in the case of Natalie Grams!

When she was still an enthusiast, she decided to write a book. It was going to be a book that showed how good homeopathy was and how bad its critics were. To do this responsibly, she read a lot of the original literature. What she found shocked her. When reading her account, I could repeatedly feel the agony she must have felt through her discoveries. Eventually, she had no choice but to agree with most of the arguments of homeopathy’s critics and disagreed with practically all of the arguments of her fellow homeopaths.

I predict that Natalie’s painful ‘journey’ has not yet come to an end; she now argues that the 200 year old assumptions of homeopathy are all obsolete and homeopathy is certainly not an effective drug therapy. However, it may turn out to be a valuable ‘talking therapy’, she believes.

I hate to say it, but I am fairly certain that she will have to go through further agony and find that her discovery is not truly workable. It might have some theoretical value but, for a whole number of reasons, it will not function in real life heath care.

My hope is that Natalie will find her way back to what she calls ‘normal medicine’ (there is, of course, the danger that she does the opposite and wanders off into even more esoteric grounds). We need doctors like her who have empathy, compassion and understanding for their patients. These are qualities many homeopaths who I have met have in abundance – but these are qualities that belong not into the realm of quackery, they belong into real medicine.

On 26/5/2015, I received the email reproduced below. I thought it was interesting, looked up its author (“Shawn is a philosopher and writer educated at York University in Toronto, and the author of two books. He’s also worked with Aboriginal youth in the Northwest Territories of Canada”) and decided to respond by writing a blog-post rather than by answering Alli directly.

Hello Dr. Ernst, this is Shawn Alli from Canada, a blogger and philosopher. I recently finished a critical article on James Randi’s legacy. It gets into everything from ideological science, manipulation, ESP, faith healing, acupuncture and homeopathy.

Let me know what you think about it:

http://www.shawnalli.com/james-randi-disingenuous-legacy.html

It’s quite long so save it for a rainy day.

So far, the reply from skeptical organizations range from: “I couldn’t read further than the first few paragraphs because I disagree with the claims…” to one word replies: “Petty.”

It’s always nice to know how open-minded skeptical organizations are.

Hopefully you can add a bit more.

Sincerely,

Shawn

Yes, indeed, I can but try to add a bit more!

However, Alli’s actual article is far too long to analyse it here in full. I therefore selected just the bit that I feel most competent commenting on and which is closest to my heart. Below, I re-produce this section of Alli’s article in full. I add my comments at the end (in bold) by inserting numbered responses which refer to the numbers (in round brackets [the square ones refer to Alli’s references]) inserted throughout Alli’s text. Here we go:

Homeopathy & Acupuncture:

A significant part of Randi’s legacy is his war against homeopathy. This is where Randi shines even above mainstream scientists such as Dawkins or Tyson.

Most of his talks ridicule homeopathy as nonsense that doesn’t deserve the distinction of being called a treatment. This is due to the fact that the current scientific method is unable to account for the results of homeopathy (1). In reality, the current scientific method can’t account for the placebo effect as well (2).

But then again, that presents an internal problem as well. The homeopathic community is divided by those who believe it’s a placebo effect and those that believe it’s more than that, advocating the theory of water memory, which mainstream scientists ridicule and vilify (3).

I don’t know what camp is correct (4), but I do know that the homeopathic community shouldn’t follow the lead of mainstream scientists and downplay the placebo effect as, it’s just a placebo (5).

Remember, the placebo effect is downplayed because the current scientific method is unable to account for the phenomenon (3, 5). It’s a wondrous and real effect, regardless of the ridicule and vilification (6) that’s attached to it.

While homeopathy isn’t suitable as a treatment for severe or acute medical conditions, it’s an acceptable treatment for minor, moderate or chronic ones (7). Personally, I’ve never tried homeopathic treatments. But I would never tell individuals not to consider it. To each their own, as long as it’s within universal ethics (8).

A homeopathic community in Greece attempts to conduct an experiment demonstrating a biological effect using homeopathic medicine and win Randi’s million dollar challenge. George Vithoulkas and his team spend years creating the protocol of the study, only to be told by Randi to redo it from scratch. [29] (9) I recommend readers take a look at:

The facts about an ingenious homeopathic experiment that was not completed due to the “tricks” of Mr. James Randi.

Randi’s war against homeopathy is an ideological one (10). He’ll never change his mind despite positive results in and out of the lab (11). This is the epitome of dogmatic ideological thinking (12).

The same is true for acupuncture (13). In his NECSS 2012 talk Randi says:

Harvard Medical School is now offering an advanced course for physicians in acupuncture, which has been tested endlessly for centuries and it does not work in any way. And believe me, I know what I’m talking about. [30]

Acupuncture is somewhat of a grey area for mainstream scientists and the current scientific method. One ideological theory states that acupuncture operates on principles of non-physical energy in the human body and relieving pressure on specific meridians. The current scientific method is unable to account for non-physical human energy and meridians.

A mainstream scientific theory of acupuncture is one of neurophysiology, whereby acupuncture works by affecting the release of neurotransmitters. I don’t know which theory is correct; but I do know that those who do try acupuncture usually feel better (14).

In regards to the peer-reviewed literature, I believe (15) that there’s a publication bias against acupuncture being seen as a viable treatment for minor, moderate or chronic conditions. A few peer-reviewed articles support the use of acupuncture for various conditions:

Eight sessions of weekly group acupuncture compared with group oral care education provide significantly better relief of symptoms in patients suffering from chronic radiation-induced xerostomia. [31]

It is concluded that this study showed highly positive effects on pain and function through the collaborative treatment of acupuncture and motion style in aLBP [acute lower back pain] patients. [32]

Given the limited efficacy of antidepressant treatment…the present study provides evidence in supporting the viewpoint that acupuncture is an effective and safe alternative treatment for depressive disorders, and could be considered an alternative option especially for patients with MDD [major depressive disorder] and PSD [post-stroke depression], although evidence for its effects in augmenting antidepressant agents remains controversial. [33]

In conclusion: We find that acupuncture significantly relieves hot flashes and sleep disturbances in women treated for breast cancer. The effect was seen in the therapy period and at least 12 weeks after acupuncture treatment ceased. The effect was not correlated with increased levels of plasma estradiol. The current study showed no side effects of acupuncture. These results indicate that acupuncture can be used as an effective treatment of menopausal discomfort. [34]

In conclusion, the present study demonstrates, in rats, that EA [electroacupuncture] significantly attenuates bone cancer induced hyperalgesia, which, at least in part, is mediated by EA suppression of IL-1…expression. [35]

In animal model of focal cerebral ischemia, BBA [Baihui (GV20)-based Scalp acupuncture] could improve IV [infarct volume] and NFS [neurological function score]. Although some factors such as study quality and possible publication bias may undermine the validity of positive findings, BBA may have potential neuroprotective role in experimental stroke. [36]

In conclusion, this randomized sham-controlled study suggests that electroacupuncture at acupoints including Zusanli, Sanyinjiao, Hegu, and Zhigou is more effective than no acupuncture and sham acupuncture in stimulating early return of bowel function and reducing postoperative analgesic requirements after laparoscopic colorectal surgery. Electroacupuncture is also more effective than no acupuncture in reducing the duration of hospital stay. [37]

In conclusion, we found acupuncture to be superior to both no acupuncture control and sham acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain…Our results from individual patient data meta-analyses of nearly 18000 randomized patients in high-quality RCTs [randomized controlled trials] provide the most robust evidence to date that acupuncture is a reasonable referral option for patients with chronic pain. [38]

While Randi and many other mainstream scientists will argue (16) that the above claims are the result of ideological science and cherry picking, in reality, they’re the result of good science going up against dogmatic (17) and profit-driven (17) ideological (17) science.

Yes, the alternative medicine industry is now a billion dollar industry. But the global pharmaceutical medical industry is worth hundreds of trillions of dollars. And without its patients (who need to be in a constant state of ill health), it can’t survive (18).

Individuals who have minor, moderate, or chronic medical conditions don’t want to be part of the hostile debate between alternative medicine vs. pharmaceutical medical science (19). They just want to get better and move on with their life. The constant war that mainstream scientists wage against alternative medicine is only hurting the people they’re supposed to be helping (20).

Yes, the ideologies (21) are incompatible. Yes, there are no accepted scientific theories for such treatments. Yes, it defies what mainstream scientists currently “know” about the human body (22).

It would be impressive if a peace treaty can exist between both sides, where both don’t agree, but respect each other enough to put aside their pride and help patients to regain their health (23).

END OF ALLI’S TEXT

And here are my numbered comments:

(1) This is not how I understand Randi’s position. Randi makes a powerful point about the fact that the assumptions of homeopathy are not plausible, which is entirely correct – so much so that even some leading homeopaths admit that this is true.

(2) This is definitely not correct; the placebo effect has been studied in much detail, and we can certainly ‘account’ for it.

(3) In my 40 years of researching homeopathy and talking to homeopaths, I have not met any homeopaths who “believe it’s a placebo effect”.

(4) There is no ‘placebo camp’ amongst homeopaths; so this is not a basis for an argument; it’s a fallacy.

(5) They very definitely are mainstream scientists, like F Benedetti, who research the placebo effect and they certainly do not ‘downplay’ it. (What many people fail to understand is that, in placebo-controlled trials, one aims at controlling the placebo effect; to a research-naïve person, this may indeed LOOK LIKE downplaying it. But this impression is wrong and reflects merely a lack of understanding.)

(6) No serious scientist attaches ‘ridicule and vilification’ to it.

(7) Who says so? I know only homeopaths who hold this opinion; and it is not evidence-based.

(8) Ethics demand that patients require the best available treatment; homeopathy does not fall into this category.

(9) At one stage (more than 10 years ago), I was involved in the design of this test. My recollection of it is not in line with the report that is linked here.

(10) So far, we have seen no evidence for this statement.

(11) Which ones? No examples are provided.

(12) Yet another statement without evidence – potentially libellous.

(13) Conclusion before any evidence; sign for a closed mind?

(14) This outcome could be entirely unrelated to acupuncture, as anyone who has a minimum of health care knowledge should know.

(15) We are not concerned with beliefs, we concerned with facts here, aren’t we ?

(16) But did they argue this? Where is the evidence to support this statement?

(17) Non-evidence-based accusations.

(18) Classic fallacy.

(19) The debate is not between alt med and ‘pharmaceutical science’, it is between those who insist on treatments which demonstrably generate more good than harm, and those who want alt med regardless of any such considerations.

(20) Warning consumers of treatments which fail to fulfil the above criterion is, in my view, an ethical duty which can save much money and many lives.

(21) Yes, alt med is clearly ideology-driven; by contrast conventional medicine is not (if it were, Alli would have explained what ideology it is precisely). Conventional medicine changes all the time, sometimes even faster than we can cope with, and is mainly orientated on evidence which is not an ideology. Alt med hardly changes or progresses at all; for the most part, its ideology is that of a cult celebrating anti-science and obsolete traditions.

(22) Overt contradiction to what Alli just stated about acupuncture.

(23) To me, this seems rather nonsensical and a hindrance to progress.

In summary, I feel that Alli argues his corner very poorly. He makes statements without supporting evidence, issues lots of opinion without providing the facts (occasionally even hiding them), falls victim of logical fallacies, and demonstrates an embarrassing lack of knowledge and common sense. Most crucially, the text seems bar of any critical analysis; to me, it seems like a bonanza of unreason.

To save Alli the embarrassment of arguing that I am biased or don’t know what I am talking about, I’d like to declare the following: I am not paid by ‘Big Pharma’ or anyone else, I am not aware of having any other conflicts of interest, I have probably published more research on alt med (some of it with positive conclusions !!!) than anyone else on the planet, my research was funded mostly by organisations/donors who were in favour of alt med, and I have no reason whatsoever to defend Randi (I only met him personally once). My main motivation for responding to Alli’s invitation to comment on his bizarre article is that I have fun exposing ‘alt med nonsense’ and believe it is a task worth doing.

Recent Comments

Note that comments can be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted.


Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.

Categories