Has it ever occurred to you that much of the discussion about cause and effect in alternative medicine goes in circles without ever making progress? I have come to the conclusion that it does. Here I try to illustrate this point using the example of acupuncture, more precisely the endless discussion about how to best test acupuncture for efficacy. For those readers who like to misunderstand me I should explain that the sceptics’ view is in capital letters.
At the beginning there was the experience. Unaware of anatomy, physiology, pathology etc., people started sticking needles in other people’s skin, some 2000 years ago, and observed that they experienced relief of all sorts of symptoms.When an American journalist reported about this phenomenon in the 1970s, acupuncture became all the rage in the West. Acupuncture-fans then claimed that a 2000-year history is ample proof that acupuncture does work.
BUT ANECDOTES ARE NOTORIOUSLY UNRELIABLE!
Even the most enthusiastic advocates conceded that this is probably true. So they documented detailed case-series of lots of patients, calculated the average difference between the pre- and post-treatment severity of symptoms, submitted it to statistical tests, and published the notion that the effects of acupuncture are not just anecdotal; in fact, they are statistically significant, they said.
BUT THIS EFFECT COULD BE DUE TO THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE CONDITION!
“True enough”, grumbled the acupuncture-fans and conducted the very first controlled clinical trials. Essentially they treated one group of patients with acupuncture while another group received conventional treatments as usual. When they analysed the results, they found that the acupuncture group had improved significantly more. “Now do you believe us?”, they asked triumphantly, “acupuncture is clearly effective”.
NO! THIS OUTCOME MIGHT BE DUE TO SELECTION BIAS. SUCH A STUDY-DESIGN CANNOT ESTABLISH CAUSE AND EFFECT.
The acupuncturists felt slightly embarrassed because they had not thought of that. They had allocated their patients to the treatment according to patients’ choice. Thus the expectation of the patients (or the clinician) to get relief from acupuncture might have been the reason for the difference in outcome. So they consulted an expert in trial-design and were advised to allocate not by choice but by chance. In other words, they repeated the previous study but randomised patients to the two groups. Amazingly, their RCT still found a significant difference favouring acupuncture over treatment as usual.
BUT THIS DIFFERENCE COULD BE CAUSED BY A PLACEBO-EFFECT!
Now the acupuncturists were in a bit of a pickle; as far as they could see, there was no good placebo for acupuncture! Eventually some methodologist-chap came up with the idea that, in order to mimic a placebo, they could simply stick needles into non-acupuncture points. When the acupuncturists tried that method, they found that there were improvements in both groups but the difference between real acupuncture and placebo was tiny and usually neither statistically significant nor clinically relevant.
NOW DO YOU CONCEDE THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS NOT AN EFFECTIVE TREATMENT?
Absolutely not! The results merely show that needling non-acupuncture points is not an adequate placebo. Obviously this intervention also sends a powerful signal to the brain which clearly makes it an effective intervention. What do you expect when you compare two effective treatments?
IF YOU REALLY THINK SO, YOU NEED TO PROVE IT AND DESIGN A PLACEBO THAT IS INERT.
At that stage, the acupuncturists came up with a placebo-needle that did not actually penetrate the skin; it worked like a mini stage dagger that telescopes into itself while giving the impression that it penetrated the skin just like the real thing. Surely this was an adequate placebo! The acupuncturists repeated their studies but, to their utter dismay, they found again that both groups improved and the difference in outcome between their new placebo and true acupuncture was minimal.
WE TOLD YOU THAT ACUPUNCTURE WAS NOT EFFECTIVE! DO YOU FINALLY AGREE?
Certainly not, they replied. We have thought long and hard about these intriguing findings and believe that they can be explained just like the last set of results: the non-penetrating needles touch the skin; this touch provides a stimulus powerful enough to have an effect on the brain; the non-penetrating placebo-needles are not inert and therefore the results merely depict a comparison of two effective treatments.
YOU MUST BE JOKING! HOW ARE YOU GOING TO PROVE THAT BIZARRE HYPOTHESIS?
We had many discussions and consensus meeting amongst the most brilliant brains in acupuncture about this issue and have arrived at the conclusion that your obsession with placebo, cause and effect etc. is ridiculous and entirely misplaced. In real life, we don’t use placebos. So, let’s instead address the ‘real life’ question: is acupuncture better than usual treatment? We have conducted pragmatic studies where one group of patients gets treatment as usual and the other group receives acupuncture in addition. These studies show that acupuncture is effective. This is all the evidence we need. Why can you not believe us?
NOW WE HAVE ARRIVED EXACTLY AT THE POINT WHERE WE HAVE BEEN A LONG TIME AGO. SUCH A STUDY-DESIGN CANNOT ESTABLISH CAUSE AND EFFECT. YOU OBVIOUSLY CANNOT DEMONSTRATE THAT ACUPUNCTURE CAUSES CLINICAL IMPROVEMENT. THEREFORE YOU OPT TO PRETEND THAT CAUSE AND EFFECT ARE IRRELEVANT. YOU USE SOME IMITATION OF SCIENCE TO ‘PROVE’ THAT YOUR PRECONCEIVED IDEAS ARE CORRECT. YOU DO NOT SEEM TO BE INTERESTED IN THE TRUTH ABOUT ACUPUNCTURE AT ALL.
As I write these words, I am travelling back from a medical conference. The organisers had invited me to give a lecture which I concluded saying: “anyone in medicine not believing in evidence-based health care is in the wrong business”. This statement was meant to stimulate the discussion and provoke the audience who were perhaps just a little on the side of those who are not all that taken by science.
I may well have been right, because, in the coffee break, several doctors disputed my point; to paraphrase their arguments: “You don’t believe in the value of experience, you think that science is the way to know everything. But you are wrong! Philosophers and other people, who are a lot cleverer than you, tell us that science is not the way to real knowledge; and in some forms of medicine we have a wealth of experience which we cannot ignore. This is at least as important as scientific knowledge. Take TCM, for instance, thousands of years of tradition must mean something; in fact it tells us more than science will ever be able to. Qi-energy, for instance, is a concept based on experience, and science is useless at verifying it.”
I disagreed, of course. But I am afraid that I did not convince my colleagues. The appeal to tradition is amazingly powerful, so much so that even well-seasoned physicians fall for it. Yet it nevertheless is a fallacy, I am sure.
So what does experience tell us, how is it generated and why should it be unreliable?
On the level of the individual, experience emerges when a clinician makes similar observations several times in a row. This is so persuasive that few doctors are immune to the phenomenon. Let’s assume the experience is about acupuncture, more precisely about acupuncture for smoking cessation. The acupuncturist presumably has learnt during his training that his therapy works for that indication via stimulating the flow of Qi, and promptly tries it on several patients. Some of them come back for more and report that they find it easier to give up cigarettes after consulting him. This happens repeatedly, and our clinician forthwith is convinced – in fact, he knows – that acupuncture is effective for smoking cessation.
If we critically analyse this scenario, what does it tell us? It tells us very little of relevance, I am afraid. The scenario is entirely compatible with a whole host of explanations which have nothing to do with the effects of acupuncture per se:
- Those patients who did not manage to stop smoking might not have returned. Only seeing his successes without his failures, the acupuncturist would have got the wrong end of the stick.
- Human memory is selective such that the few patients who did come back and reported failure might easily get forgotten by the clinician. We all remember the good things and forget the disappointments, particularly if we are clinicians.
- The placebo-effect might have played a dirty trick on the experience of our acupuncturist.
- Some patients might have used nicotine patches that helped him to stop smoking without disclosing this fact to the acupuncturist who then, of course, attributed the benefit to his needling.
- The acupuncturist – being a very kind and empathetic clinician – might have involuntarily induced some of his patients to show kindness in return and thus tell porkies about their smoking habits which would have created a false positive impression about the effectiveness of his treatment.
- Being so empathetic, the acupuncturists would have provided lots of encouragement to stop smoking which, in some patients, might have been sufficient to kick the habit.
The long and short of all this is that our acupuncturist gradually got convinced by this interplay of factors that Qi exists and that acupuncture is an ineffective treatment. Hence forth he would bet his last shirt that he is right about this – after all, he has seen it with his own eyes, not just once but many times. And he will doubt anyone who shows him evidence that says otherwise. In fact, he is likely become very sceptical about scientific evidence in general – just like the doctors who talked to me after my lecture.
On a population level, such experience will be prevalent in not just one but most acupuncturists. Our clinician’s experience is certainly not unique; others will have made it too. In fact, as an acupuncturist, it is hard not to make it. Acupuncturists would have told everyone else about it, perhaps reported it on conferences or published it in articles or books. Experience of this nature is passed on from generation to generation, and soon someone will be able to demonstrate that acupuncture has been used ’effectively’ for smoking cessation since decades or centuries. The creation of a myth out of unreliable experience is thus complete.
Am I saying that experience of this nature is always and necessarily wrong or useless? No, I am not. It can be and often is correct. But, at the same time, it is frequently incorrect. It can serve as a valuable indicator but not more. Experience is not a tool for reliably informing us about the effectiveness of medical interventions. Experience based-medicine is an obsolete pseudo-medicine burdened with concepts that are counter-productive to optimal health care.
Philosophers and other people who are much cleverer than I am have been trying for some time to separate good from bad science and evidence from experience. Most recently, two philosophers, MASSIMO PIGLIUCCI and MAARTEN BOUDRY, commented specifically on this problem in relation to TCM. I leave you with some extensive quotes from what they wrote.
… pointing out that some traditional Chinese remedies (like drinking fresh turtle blood to alleviate cold symptoms) may in fact work, and therefore should not be dismissed as pseudoscience… risks confusing the possible effectiveness of folk remedies with the arbitrary theoretical-metaphysical baggage attached to it. There is no question that some folk remedies do work. The active ingredient of aspirin, for example, is derived from willow bark…
… claims about the existence of “Qi” energy, channeled through the human body by way of “meridians,” though, is a different matter. This sounds scientific, because it uses arcane jargon that gives the impression of articulating explanatory principles. But there is no way to test the existence of Qi and associated meridians, or to establish a viable research program based on those concepts, for the simple reason that talk of Qi and meridians only looks substantive, but it isn’t even in the ballpark of an empirically verifiable theory.
…the notion of Qi only mimics scientific notions such as enzyme actions on lipid compounds. This is a standard modus operandi of pseudoscience: it adopts the external trappings of science, but without the substance.
…The notion of Qi, again, is not really a theory in any meaningful sense of the word. It is just an evocative word to label a mysterious force of which we do not know and we are not told how to find out anything at all.
Still, one may reasonably object, what’s the harm in believing in Qi and related notions, if in fact the proposed remedies seem to help? Well, setting aside the obvious objections that the slaughtering of turtles might raise on ethical grounds, there are several issues to consider. To begin with, we can incorporate whatever serendipitous discoveries from folk medicine into modern scientific practice, as in the case of the willow bark turned aspirin. In this sense, there is no such thing as “alternative” medicine, there’s only stuff that works and stuff that doesn’t.
Second, if we are positing Qi and similar concepts, we are attempting to provide explanations for why some things work and others don’t. If these explanations are wrong, or unfounded as in the case of vacuous concepts like Qi, then we ought to correct or abandon them. Most importantly, pseudo-medical treatments often do not work, or are even positively harmful. If you take folk herbal “remedies,” for instance, while your body is fighting a serious infection, you may suffer severe, even fatal, consequences.
…Indulging in a bit of pseudoscience in some instances may be relatively innocuous, but the problem is that doing so lowers your defenses against more dangerous delusions that are based on similar confusions and fallacies. For instance, you may expose yourself and your loved ones to harm because your pseudoscientific proclivities lead you to accept notions that have been scientifically disproved, like the increasingly (and worryingly) popular idea that vaccines cause autism.
Philosophers nowadays recognize that there is no sharp line dividing sense from nonsense, and moreover that doctrines starting out in one camp may over time evolve into the other. For example, alchemy was a (somewhat) legitimate science in the times of Newton and Boyle, but it is now firmly pseudoscientific (movements in the opposite direction, from full-blown pseudoscience to genuine science, are notably rare)….
The borderlines between genuine science and pseudoscience may be fuzzy, but this should be even more of a call for careful distinctions, based on systematic facts and sound reasoning. To try a modicum of turtle blood here and a little aspirin there is not the hallmark of wisdom and even-mindedness. It is a dangerous gateway to superstition and irrationality
I regularly used to ask alternative practitioners what diseases they are good at treating. In fact, we once ran an entire research project dedicated to this question and found that their own impressions were generally based on wishful thinking rather than on evidence. The libel case of the BCA versus Simon Singh then brought this issue into the focus of the public eye, and consequently several professional organisations of alternative practitioners seem to have advised their members to be cautious about making unsubstantiated therapeutic claims. This could have been an important step into the right direction – unless, of course, a clever trick had not been devised to bypass the need for evidence. Today, when I ask alternative practitioners ‘what do you treat effectively?’ I tend to get answers like:
- Alternative practitioners, unlike conventional clinicians, do not treat diseases.
- I treat the whole person, not just the disease.
- I treat people and their specific set of signs and symptoms, rather than disease labels (this actually is a quote from the comments section of one of my recent posts).
- I focus on the totality of the symptoms; disease labels are irrelevant in the realm of my therapy.
- Chiropractors adjust subluxations which are the root cause for most diseases.
- Acupuncturists re-balance life energies which is a precondition for healing to commence irrespective of the disease.
- Homeopaths treat the totality of symptoms so that the patient’s vital force can do the healing.
- etc. etc.
All of these statements are deeply rooted in the long obsolete notions of vitalism, i.e. the assumption that a vital energy flows in all living organisms and is responsible for our health irrespective of the disease we happen to suffer from. But what do the answers to my question ‘what do you treat?’ really mean? If we analyse the above responses critically, they seem to imply that:
- Conventional clinicians do not treat patients but merely disease labels.
- Alternative practitioners can successfully treat any disease or condition.
Ad 1 In my view, it is arrogant and grossly unfair to claim that alternative practitioners work holistically, while conventional health care professionals do not. I have pointed out repeatedly that any good medicine always has been and always will be holistic. High-jacking holism as a specific characteristic for alternative medicine is misleading and an insult to all conventional clinicians who do their best to practice good medicine.
Ad 2 By claiming that they treat the whole person irrespective of her disease, alternative practitioners effectively try to give themselves a ‘carte blanche’ for treating any disease or any condition or any symptom. If a child has asthma, a chiropractor will find a subluxation, adjust it with spinal manipulation, and claim that the child’s condition will improve as a consequence of his treatment – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE. If a person wants to give up smoking, an acupuncturist will use acupuncture to re-balance her yin and yang claiming that this intervention will make smoking cessation more successful – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE. If a patient suffers from cancer, a homeopath might find a remedy that promotes her vital energy claiming that the cancer will subsequently be cured – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE which in all of the three cases is negative.
The claim of alternative practitioners to not treat disease labels but the whole patient is doubtlessly attractive to consumers and it is also extremely good for business. On closer inspection, however, it turns out to be a distraction from the fact that alternative practitioners treat everything and anything, usually without the slightest evidence that their interventions generates more good than harm. It allows alternative practitioners to live in a fool’s paradise of quackery where they believe themselves to be protected from any challenges and demands for evidence.
Having disclosed in my previous post that, on 1 October, I have been in full-time alternative medicine research for exactly 20 years, I thought it might be interesting to briefly reflect on these two decades. One thing I ought to make clear from the beginning: I truly enjoy my work (well, ~90% of it anyway). When I came to Exeter, I never expected it to get so fascinating, and I am surprised to see how it gripped me.
A PERIOD OF TWO HALVES
One could divide these two decades in two periods of roughly equal length. The first half was characterised by defining my aims, assembling a team, getting the infrastructure sorted and doing plenty of research. I had made it very clear from the beginning that I was not going to promote alternative medicine; my aim was to critically evaluate it. Once I realised how controversial and high profile some of our work could become, I made a conscious effort to keep out of any disputes and tried to avoid the limelight. I wanted to first do my ‘homework’, analyse the evidence, produce own results and be quite sure of my own position before I entered into any public controversies. During this time, we therefore almost exclusively published in medical journals, lectured to medical audiences and generally kept as low a public profile as possible.
The second half was characterised by much more research and my increasing willingness to stick my head out and stand up publicly for the findings I had reasons to be confident about. The evidence had reached a point where it was simply no longer possible nor ethical to keep silent. I felt we had a moral duty to speak up and present the evidence clearly; and that often meant going public: after all, alternative medicine is an area where the public often make the therapeutic decisions without consulting a health care professional – so they need accurate and reliable information. Therefore, I began publishing in the daily papers, lecturing to lay audiences more regularly and addressing the public in many other ways.
THE PLEASURE OF SUPPORTING YOUNG SCIENTISTS
One of the most gratifying aspects of directing a research team is to meet and befriend scientists from all over the world. When several independent analyses had shown that our team had grown into the most productive research unit in alternative medicine worldwide, we started receiving numerous requests from young scientists across the globe to join us. Many of those individuals later went back to their home countries to occupy key positions in research. Our concept of critical evaluation thus spread around the world – at least this is what I hope when I feel optimistic about our achievements.
Amongst the ~90 staff who have worked with me during the last 20 years, we had many enthusiastic and gifted scientists. I owe thanks to all of those who advanced our research and helped us to make progress through critical evaluation. Unfortunately, we also had a few co-workers who, despite of our best efforts, proved to be unable of critical thinking, and more than once this created unrest, tension and trouble. When I analyse these cases in retrospect, I realise how quasi-religious belief must inevitably get in the way of good science. If a person is deeply convinced about the value of his/her particular alternative therapy and thus decides to become a researcher in order to prove his/her point, serious problems are unavoidable.
THE THREE MOST IMPORTANT MESSAGES
But generally speaking, my team worked both very well and extremely hard. Perhaps the best evidence for that statement is the fact that we published more than 1000 articles in the peer review literature, including ~30 clinical trials and 300 systematic reviews/meta-analyses. If I had to extract what I consider to be the three the most important messages from these papers, I might make the following points:
- The concepts that underpin alternative treatments are often not plausible and must be assessed critically.
- Most claims made for alternative medicine are unproven and quite a few should be regarded as disproven.
- Very few alternative therapies demonstrably generate more good than harm.
Looking back to those 20 years, I am struck by the frequency with which I encountered intellectual dishonesty and denial of facts and evidence. Medical research, I had previously assumed is a rather dry and unemotional business – not so when it comes to research into alternative medicine! Here it is dominated by people who carry so much emotional baggage that rational analysis becomes the exception rather than the rule.
The disappointment of alternative medicine apologists had been noticeable virtually from the start; they had quickly realised that I was not in the business of promoting quackery. My remit was to test hypotheses, and when you do that, you have to try to falsify them. To those who fail to understand the rules of science – and that is the vast majority of alternative medicine fans – this process can appear like a negative, perhaps even destructive activity. Consequently, some people began to suspect that I was working against their interests. In fact, as a researcher, I had little patience with such people’s petty interests; all I wanted is to do good science, hopefully for the benefit of the patient.
These sentiments grew dramatically during the second decade when I began to go public with the evidence which often failed to confirm the expectations of alternative medicine enthusiasts. To see the truth published in relatively obscure medical journals might have already been tough for them; to see it in the daily papers or hear it on the radio from someone whom they could not easily accuse of incompetence was obviously more than the evangelic believers could take. Their relatively cautious attitude towards our work soon changed into overt aggression, particularly after our book ‘TRICK OR TREATMENT…‘. The second decade was therefore also characterised by numerous attacks, challenges, defamations and conflicts, not least the ‘run ins’ with Prince Charles and his sycophants. Unfortunately, my own University as well as my newly formed Medical School had no stomach for such battles; the top officials of both institutions seemed more concerned about their knighthoods than about defending me against obviously malicious attacks which could only have one aim: to silence me.
But silence they did me not! It is simply not in my character to give up when I know that I have done nothing wrong and fighting ‘the good fight’. On the contrary, each attack merely strengthened my resolve to fight harder for what I knew was right, ethical and necessary. Eventually, my peers became so frustrated with my resilience that they pulled the plug: they stopped all support. This meant my team had to be dismissed and I had to go into early retirement.
Since about a year, I am ‘Emeritus Professor’, a status which has disadvantages (no co-workers to help with the research, no salary) but also important advantages. I can finally speak the truth without fearing that some administrator suffering from acute ‘knighthood starvation syndrome’ is going to try to discipline me for my actions.
This blog, I think, is pretty good evidence for the fact that I continue to enjoy my work in alternative medicine. I cannot promise to do another 20 years but, for the time being, I continue to be research-active and am involved in numerous other activities. Currently I am also writing a book which will provide a full account of those remarkable last 20 years (almost finished but I have no publisher yet) and I am working on the concept of another book that deals with alternative medicine in more general terms. They did not silence me yet, and I do not assume they will soon.
Homeopaths can bear criticism only when it is highly diluted. Any critique from the ‘outside’ is therefore dismissed by insisting that the author fails to understand the subtleties of homeopathy. And criticism from the ‘inside’ does not exist: by definition, a homeopath does not criticise his/her own trade. Through these mechanisms, homeopaths have more or less successfully shielded themselves from all arguments against their activities and have, for the last 200 years, managed to survive in a world of make-belief.
As I will show below, I started my professional life on the side of the homeopaths – I am not proud of this fact, but there is no use denying it. When the evidence told me more and more clearly that I had been wrong, about 10 years ago, I began expressing serious doubts about the plausibility, efficacy and safety of using homeopathic remedies to treat patients in need. Homeopaths reacted not just with anger, they were also at a loss.
Their little trick of saying ‘He does not understand homeopathy and therefore his critique is invalid’ could not possibly work in my case – I had been one of them: I had attended their meetings, chaired some of their sessions, edited a book on homeopathy, accepted an invitation to join the editorial board of the journal ‘HOMEOPATHY‘ as well as a EU-panel investigating homeopathy, conducted trials, systematic reviews and meta-analyses, published over 100 articles on the subject, accepted money from Prince Charles as well as from the ‘ueber-homeopath’ George Vithoulkas for my research, and even contributed to THE INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY OF HOMEOPATHY. It would have not looked reasonable to suddenly deny my previously accepted expertise. Homeopaths thus found themselves in a pickle: critique from the ‘inside’ is not what they were used to or could easily cope with.
The homeopathic idyll was under threat, and a solution to the problem had to be found with some urgency. And soon enough, it was found. Homeopaths from across the world started claiming that I had been telling porkies about my training/qualifications in homeopathy: “Edzard Ernst has admitted that he has over the years lied or supported a lie about having homeopathic training. In reality he has had none at all! The leading so-called ‘expert’ and critic of homeopathy, Professor Edzard Ernst, has admitted that he has no qualifications in homeopathy. etc. etc. Diluting the truth to the extreme, they almost unanimously insisted that, contrary to my previous assertions, I had no training/qualifications in homeopathy. Thus, they began to argue, that I was an imposter and had insufficient knowledge, expertise and experience after all: Professor Edzard Ernst the leading ‘authority’ on homeopathy, and perhaps its most referenced critic, has no qualifications in homeopathy. William Alderson of HMC21 also claims that Ernst’s book Trick or Treatment? shows Ernst to be unreliable as a researcher into homeopathy. Opposition to homeopathy is based on propaganda, they stated. Others wrote that Edzard Ernst’ failure as a homeopath only proves he lacked some basic qualities essential to become a successful homeopath. He failed as a homeopath, and then turned a skeptic. His failure is only his failure- it does not disprove homeopathy by any way. Once he failed in putting a mark as a successful homeopath or CAM practitioner, he just tried the other way to become famous and respectable- he converted himself into a skeptic, which provided him with ample opportunities to appear on ‘anti-homeopathy’ platforms’ as an ‘authority’, ‘expert’ and ‘ex-homeopath’! Some went even further claiming that I had also lied about my medical qualifications.
These notions has been going around the internet for several years now and conveniently served as a reason to re-categorise me into the camp of the homeopathically unqualified pseudo-experts: ‘We believe that it is time to recognise that opposition to homeopathy is largely based on the opinions of individuals who are unqualified or unwilling to judge the evidence fairly’. I, by contrast, believe it is time that I disclose the full truth about ‘my double-life as a homeopath’. What exactly is my background in this area? Have I really been found out to be a confidence-trickster?
THE HOMEOPATHIC CLINICIAN
I graduated from medical school in Munich in the late 1970s and, looking for a job, I realised that there weren’t any. At the time, Germany had a surplus of doctors and all the posts I wanted were taken. Eventually, I found one in the only hospital that was run almost entirely homoeopathically, the KRANKENHAUS FUER NATURHEILWEISEN in Munich. Within about half a year, I learned how to think like a homeopath, diagnose like a homeopath and treat patients like a homeopath. I never attended formal courses or aspired to get a certificate; as far as I remember, none of the junior doctors working in the homeopathic hospital did that either. We were expected to learn on the job, and so we did.
Our teachers at medical school had hardly ever mentioned homeopathy, but one thing they had nevertheless made abundantly clear to us: homeopathy cannot possibly work; there is nothing in these pills and potions! To my surprise, however, my patients improved, their symptoms subsided and, in general, they were very happy with the treatment we provided. My professors had told me that homeopathy was rubbish, but they had forgotten to teach me a much more important lesson: critical thinking. Therefore, I might be forgiven for proudly assuming that my patients’ improvement was due to my skilful homeopathic prescriptions.
But then came another surprise: the boss of the homeopathic hospital, Dr Zimmermann, took me under his wings, and we had occasional discussions about this and that and, of course, about homeopathy. When I shyly mentioned what I had been told at medical school ( about homeopathy being entirely implausible), he agreed! I was speechless. Crucially, he considered that there were other explanations: “Our patients might improve because we look after them well and we discontinue all the unnecessary medication they come in with; perhaps the homeopathic remedies play only a small part”, he said.
THE INVESTIGATOR OF HOMEOPATHY
This may well have been the first time I started looking critically at homeopathy and my own clinical practice – and this is roughly where I left things as far as homeopathy is concerned until, in 1993, it became my job to research alternative therapies systematically and rigorously. Meanwhile I had done a PhD and tried my best to learn the skills of critical analysis. As I began to investigate homeopathy scientifically, I found that my former boss had been right: patients do indeed improve because of a multitude of factors: placebo-effects, natural history of the disease, regression towards the mean, to mention just three of a multitude of phenomena. At the same time, he had not been entirely correct: homeopathic remedies are pure placebos; they do not play a ‘small part’ in patients’ improvement, they play no part in this process.
As I began to state this more and more clearly, all sorts of ad hominem attacks were hauled in my direction, and recently I was even fired from the editorial board of the journal ‘HOMEOPATHY’ because allegedly I “…smeared homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine…” I don’t mind any of that – but I do think that the truth about ‘my double-life as a homeopath’ should not be diluted like a homeopathic remedy until it suits those who think they can defame me by claiming I am a liar and do not know what I am talking about.
This rather depressing story shows, I think, that some homeopaths, rather than admitting they are in the wrong, are prepared to dilute the truth until it might be hard for third parties to tell who is right and who is wrong. But however they may deny it, the truth is still the truth: I have been trained as a homeopath.
I have said it so often that I hesitate to state it again: an uncritical researcher is a contradiction in terms. This begs the question as to how critical the researchers of alternative medicine truly are. In my experience, most tend to be uncritical in the extreme. But how would one go about providing evidence for this view? In a previous blog-post, I have suggested a fairly simple method: to calculate an index of negative conclusions drawn in the articles published by a specific researcher. This is what I wrote:
If we calculated the percentage of a researcher’s papers arriving at positive conclusions and divided this by the percentage of his papers drawing negative conclusions, we might have a useful measure. A realistic example might be the case of a clinical researcher who has published a total of 100 original articles. If 50% had positive and 50% negative conclusions about the efficacy of the therapy tested, his trustworthiness index (TI) would be 1.
Depending on what area of clinical medicine this person is working in, 1 might be a figure that is just about acceptable in terms of the trustworthiness of the author. If the TI goes beyond 1, we might get concerned; if it reaches 4 or more, we should get worried.
An example would be a researcher who has published 100 papers of which 80 are positive and 20 arrive at negative conclusions. His TI would consequently amount to 4. Most of us equipped with a healthy scepticism would consider this figure highly suspect.
So how would alternative medicine researchers do, if we applied this method for assessing their trustworthiness? Very poorly, I fear – but that is speculation! Let’s see some data. Let’s look at one prominent alternative medicine researcher and see. As an example, I have chosen Professor George Lewith (because his name is unique which avoids confusion with researchers), did a quick Medline search to identify the abstracts of his articles on alternative medicine, and extracted the crucial sentence from the conclusions of the most recent ones:
- The study design of registered TCM trials has improved in estimating sample size, use of blinding and placebos
- Real treatment was significantly different from sham demonstrating a moderate specific effect of PKP
- These findings highlight the importance of helping patients develop coherent illness representations about their LBP before trying to engage them in treatment-decisions, uptake, or adherence
- Existing theories of how context influences health outcomes could be expanded to better reflect the psychological components identified here, such as hope, desire, optimism and open-mindedness
- …mainstream science has moved on from the intellectual sterility and ad hominem attacks that characterise the sceptics’ movement
- Trustworthy and appropriate information about practitioners (e.g. from professional regulatory bodies) could empower patients to make confident choices when seeking individual complementary practitioners to consult
- Comparative effectiveness research is an emerging field and its development and impact must be reflected in future research strategies within complementary and integrative medicine
- The I-CAM-Q has low face validity and low acceptability, and is likely to produce biased estimates of CAM use if applied in England, Romania, Italy, The Netherlands or Spain
- Our main finding was of beta power decreases in primary somatosensory cortex and SFG, which opens up a line of future investigation regarding whether this contributes toward an underlying mechanism of acupuncture.
- …physiotherapy was appraised more negatively in the National Health Service than the private sector but osteopathy was appraised similarly within both health-care sectors
This is a bit tedious, I agree, so I stop after just 10 articles. But even this short list does clearly indicate the absence of negative conclusions. In fact, I see none at all – arguably a few neutral ones, but nothing negative. All is positive in the realm of alternative medicine research then? In case you don’t agree with that assumption, you might prefer to postulate that this particular alternative medicine researcher somehow avoids negative conclusions. And if you believe that, you are not far from considering that we are being misinformed.
Alternative medicine is not really a field where one might reasonably expect that rigorous research generates nothing but positive results; even to expect 50 or 40% of such findings would be quite optimistic. It follows, I think, that if researchers only find positives, something must be amiss. I have recently demonstrated that the most active research homeopathic group (Professor Witt from the Charite in Berlin) has published nothing but positive findings; even if the results were not quite positive, they managed to formulate a positive conclusion. Does anyone doubt that this amounts to misinformation?
So, I do have produced at least some tentative evidence for my suspicion that some alternative medicine researchers misinform us. But how precisely do they do it? I can think of several methods for avoiding publishing a negative result or conclusion, and I fear that all of them are popular with alternative medicine researchers:
- design the study in such a way that it cannot possibly give a negative result
- manipulate the data
- be inventive when it comes to statistics
- home in on to the one positive aspect your generally negative data might show
- do not write up your study; like this nobody will ever see your negative results
And why do they do it? My impression is that they use science not for testing their interventions but for proving them. Critical thinking is a skill that alternative medicine researchers do not seem to cultivate. Often they manage to hide this fact quite cleverly and for good reasons: no respectable funding body would give money for such an abuse of science! Nevertheless, the end-result is plain to see: no negative conclusions are being published!
There are at least two further implications of the fact that alternative medicine researchers misinform the public. The first concerns the academic centres in which these researchers are organised. If a prestigious university accommodates a research unit of alternative medicine, it gives considerable credence to alternative medicine itself. If the research that comes out of the unit is promotional pseudo-science, the result, in my view, amounts to misleading the public about the value of alternative medicine.
The second implication relates to the journals in which researchers of alternative medicine prefer to publish their articles. Today, there are several hundred journals specialised in alternative medicine. We have shown over and over again that these journals publish next to nothing in terms of negative results. In my view, this too amounts to systematic misinformation.
My conclusion from all this is depressing: the type of research that currently dominates alternative medicine is, in fact, pseudo-research aimed not at rigorously falsifying hypotheses but at promoting bogus treatments. In other words alternative medicine researchers crucially contribute to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in this area.
Quite a few people seem to be amazed about the amount of work and the enthusiasm I invest into this blog. To be honest, I am amazed too. Why do I do it? And why do I do it in the way I do it?
I am sure that my critics have a choice of answers at the ready; in one way or another, the following theories have been put forward:
- I was bought by the pharmaceutical industry.
- I have had a bad experience with one or several alternative practitioners.
- I want to get rich and/or famous.
- I feel that conventional medicine is flawless
- I don’t know what I am writing about.
None of these notions is remotely true, of course.
Big Pharma has never approached me, and so far nobody at all has ever tried to influence the contents of my posts. I never had a bad personal experience with alternative medicine; on the contrary, I had several quite positive ones. The blog does not earn me money; it even costs a little to run it, and nobody other than I pay for it. I do not think that fame is something one can achieve through doing a blog, and I certainly do not aim at doing so. Sadly, I know only too well about the many flaws in conventional medicine; it is often far from perfect but at least it makes progress; alternative medicine, by contrast, seems almost entirely static. As I have studied most aspects of alternative medicine for two decades and published more than any other person on this subject, I think the allegation of incompetence might be a bit far-fetched.
So, why then?
When I decided to become a doctor I, like most medical students, did so mainly to help suffering individuals. When I became a researcher, I felt more removed from this original ideal. Yet I told myself that, by conducting research, I might eventually contribute to a better health care of tomorrow. Helping suffering patients was still firmly on the agenda. But then I realised that my articles in peer-reviewed medical journals somehow missed an important target: in alternative medicine, one ought to speak not just to health care professionals but also to consumers and patients; after all, it is they who often make the therapeutic decisions in this area.
Once I had realised this, I started addressing the general public by writing for The Guardian and other newspapers, giving public lectures and publishing books for a lay audience, like TRICK OR TREATMENT…The more I did this sort of thing, the more I noticed how important this activity was. And when a friend offered to help me set up a blog, I did not hesitate for long.
So, the reason for my enthusiasm for this blog turns out to be the same as the one that enticed me to go into medicine in the first place. I do believe that it is helpful for consumers to know the truth about alternative medicine. Considering the thousands of sources of daily misinformation in this area, there is an urgent need for well-informed, critical information. By providing it, I am sure I can assist people to make better therapeutic decisions. In a way, I am back where I started all those years ago: hoping to help suffering patients in the most direct way my expertise allows.
One of the most gratifying aspect of my work in Exeter was being able to offer posts to visiting researchers from across the world. Some of these co-workers, after returning to their home countries, became prominent scientists in their own right, and quite a few remained in contact and continued to collaborate with me or with members of my team. In one of these collaborative projects, we wanted to investigate adverse events attributed to traditional medical treatments in the Republic of Korea.
For this purpose, we reviewed adverse events recorded in the Republic of Korea, between 1999 and 2010, by the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Agency or the Association of Traditional Korean Medicine. Records of adverse events attributed to the use of traditional medical practices, including reports of medicinal accidents and consumers’ complaints, were evaluated.
Overall, 9624 records of adverse events were identified. Liver problems after the administration of herbal medicines were the most frequently reported adverse events. Only eight of the adverse events were recorded by the pharmacovigilance system run by the Food and Drug Administration. Of the 9624 events, 1389 – mostly infections, cases of pneumothorax and burns – were linked to physical therapies (n = 285) or acupuncture/moxibustion (n = 1104).
We concluded that traditional medical practices often appear to have adverse effects, yet almost all of the adverse events attributed to such practices between 1999 and 2010 were missed by the national pharmacovigilance system. The Consumer Agency and the Association of Traditional Korean Medicine should be included in the national pharmacovigilance system.
The assumption that alternative treatments are entirely harmless is widespread, not least because it is incessantly promoted via millions of web-site, thousands of books, newspaper articles, VIPs like Prince Charles etc. etc. Consumers are incessantly being told that NATURAL = SAFE. Yet, if we look closely, most alternative treatments are not natural and, as this investigation demonstrates, they are certainly not devoid of risks.
I already see the apologists preparing to comment that, compared to conventional therapies, alternative treatments are very safe. So let me pre-empt this fallacy by pointing out (yet again) that 1) in the absence of adequate surveillance systems, nobody can say how frequent adverse-effects of alternative treatments really are, and that 2) even severe adverse effects can normally be tolerated, if the treatment in question has been shown to be efficacious.
So, instead of commenting on my repeated reports about the risks of alternative medicine, I invite, in fact, I challenge my critics to answer this simple question: For how many alternative therapies is there a well-documented positive risk/benefit balance?
If one spends a lot of time, as I presently do, sorting out old files, books, journals etc., one is bound to come across plenty of weird and unusual things. I for one, am slow at making progress with this task, mainly because I often start reading the material that is in front of me. It was one of those occasions that I had begun studying a book written by one of the more fanatic proponent of alternative medicine and stumbled over the term THE PROOF OF EXPERIENCE. It made me think, and I began to realise that the notion behind these four words is quite characteristic of the field of alternative health care.
When I studied medicine, in the 1970s, we were told by our peers what to do, which treatments worked for which conditions and why. They had all the experience and we, by definition, had none. Experience seemed synonymous with proof. Nobody dared to doubt the word of ‘the boss’. We were educated, I now realise, in the age of EMINENCE-BASED MEDICINE.
All of this gradually changed when the concepts of EVIDENCE-BASED MEDICINE became appreciated and generally adopted by responsible health care professionals. If now the woman or man on top of the medical ‘pecking order’ claims something that is doubtful in view of the published evidence, it is possible (sometimes even desirable) to say so – no matter how junior the doubter happened to be. As a result, medicine has thus changed for ever: progress is no longer made funeral by funeral [of the bosses] but new evidence is much more swiftly translated into clinical practice.
Don’t get me wrong, EVIDENCE-BASED MEDICINE does not does not imply disrespect EXPERIENCE; it merely takes it for what it is. And when EVIDENCE and EXPERIENCE fail to agree with each other, we have to take a deep breath, think hard and try to do something about it. Depending on the specific situation, this might involve further study or at least an acknowledgement of a degree of uncertainty. The tension between EXPERIENCE and EVIDENCE often is the impetus for making progress. The winner in this often complex story is the patient: she will receive a therapy which, according to the best available EVIDENCE and careful consideration of the EXPERIENCE, is best for her.
NOT SO IN ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE!!! Here EXPERIENCE still trumps EVIDENCE any time, and there is no need for acknowledging uncertainty: EXPERIENCE = proof!!!
In case you think I am exaggerating, I recommend thumbing through a few books on the subject. As I already stated, I have done this quite a bit in recent months, and I can assure you that there is very little evidence in these volumes to suggest that data, research, science, etc.. matter a hoot. No critical thinking is required, as long as we have EXPERIENCE on our side!
‘THE PROOF OF EXPERIENCE’ is still a motto that seems to be everywhere in alternative medicine. In many ways, it seems to me, this motto symbolises much of what is wrong with alternative medicine and the mind-set of its proponents. Often, the EXPERIENCE is in sharp contrast to the EVIDENCE. But this little detail does not seem to irritate anyone. Apologists of alternative medicine stubbornly ignore such contradictions. In the rare case where they do comment at all, the gist of their response normally is that EXPERIENCE is much more relevant than EVIDENCE. After all, EXPERIENCE is based on hundreds of years and thousands of ‘real-life’ cases, while EVIDENCE is artificial and based on just a few patients.
As far as I can see, nobody in alternative medicine pays more than a lip service to the fact that EXPERIENCE can be [and often is] grossly misleading. Little or no acknowledgement exists of the fact that, in clinical routine, there are simply far too many factors that interfere with our memories, impressions, observations and conclusions. If a patient gets better after receiving a therapy, she might have improved for a dozen reasons which are unrelated to the treatment per se. And if a patient does not get better, she might not come back at all, and the practitioner’s memory will therefore fail register such events as therapeutic failures. Whatever EXPERIENCE is, in health care, it rarely constitutes proof!
The notion of THE PROOF OF EXPERIENCE, it thus turns out, is little more than self-serving, wishful thinking which characterises the backward attitude that seems to be so remarkably prevalent in alternative medicine. No tension between EXPERIENCE and EVIDENCE is noticeable because the EVIDENCE is being ignored; as a result, there is no progress. The looser is, of course, the patient: she will receive a treatment based on criteria which are less than reliable.
Isn’t it time to burry the fallacy of THE PROOF OF EXPERIENCE once and for all?
Why another blog offering critical analyses of the weird and wonderful stuff that is going on in the world of alternative medicine? The answer is simple: compared to the plethora of uncritical misinformation on this topic, the few blogs that do try to convey more reflected, sceptical views are much needed; and the more we have of them, the better.
But 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 retired and writing a blog in an entirely private capacity.
People who have criticised this or that alternative therapy without first-hand experience of it have always been dismissed by believers as ill-informed; the argument usually is “this guy does not know what he is talking about”. Thus criticism from the outside was hardly ever taken seriously by those who needed it most. Yet it would be difficult to dismiss my arguments on such grounds: I can demonstrate that I have first-hand experience and know what I am talking about. I am clearly not an outsider.
People who criticise alternative medicine tend to claim that all of it is unscientific rubbish which we should discard. However, I am not convinced that this opinion is correct. I aim to adhere to the principles of evidence-based medicine and know that they can be applied to alternative medicine as much as to any other area of healthcare. This means that I will not dismiss everything that comes under the umbrella of alternative medicine. Our research has shown some treatments to work for some conditions, and where this is the case, I will always say so.
What follows is, I think, quite simple: this blog will differ from other blogs on the subject. It will provide critical evaluation because, in my view (and here I will express my views, not those of my Uni or anyone else), this is what is needed. But it will not engage in wholesale alternative medicine-bashing. Most importantly, it will provide comments and perspectives that are based on many years of conducting and publishing research in this area.
Since first writing these lines, it has occurred to me that it might be nice to welcome a few guest-bloggers to express their opinions. Anyone who feels like contributing should therefore contact me, and we will see what we can work out.
Before we start discussing some of the the issues around alternative medicine, let me establish a few ground rules for the debates on this blog. I do like clearly expressed views and intend to be as outspoken as politeness allows. I hope that commentators will do the same, no matter whether they agree or disagree with me. Yet a few, simple, principles should be observed by everyone commenting on my blog.
Libellous statements are not allowed.
Comments must be on topic.
Nothing published here should be taken as medical advice.
All my statements are made in a private capacity and are comments in a legal sense.
Conflicts of interest should always be disclosed.
I will take the liberty of stopping the discussion on any particular topic, if I feel that enough has been said and things are getting boring or repetitive.