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

cult

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It has been shown repeatedly that a ‘conspiracy mentality’ is associated with usage of alternative medicine. But perhaps alternative medicine is itself a conspiracy theory in disguise?

One of the questions I invariably get after a public lecture is the one about alternative medicine being the victim of some sort of sinister plot. This notion can take various shapes and forms:

  • The scientific establishment prevents the public from fully benefitting from the effects of alternative medicine.
  • The pharmaceutical industry suppresses the good news about alternative treatments.
  • The funding agencies refuse to fund research into alternative medicine.
  • The media are bent on defaming alternative medicine.
  • The regulators do not allow alternative medicine to thrive as much as it would deserve.
  • The medical profession is afraid that the benefits of alternative medicine become better known.

I could go on, but I am sure you get the picture.

The amazing thing is that I hear such arguments not just from fanatic proponents of alternative medicine, but also from more reasonable people. These sentiments seem to be entirely common and seemingly logical arguments. Most people I meet seem to believe them at least to some degree.

Having heard them so often, I do wonder: Can one explain alternative medicine as a conspiracy theory?

A conspiracy theory is an erroneous and often difficult to falsify notion that tries to explain a set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators, while ignoring obvious alternative explanations. The very concept of alternative medicine assumes that there are valuable therapies that conventional healthcare does not allow in its realm.

The reasons for the secret plot that prevents them to be included in conventional healthcare are rarely named by enthusiasts of alternative medicine. So, what are they?

  • Professional jealousy?
  • Financial interests?
  • Lack of interest?
  • Lack of caring?

According to proponents of alternative medicine who I have asked, they consist of a mixture of all of these possibilities. And all of these possibilities are, in a way, consistent with alternative medicine being based on a conspiracy theory.

When I ask people why they believe in these theories, they cannot produce any solid evidence for their beliefs. This does not surprise me because, as far as I can see, there is no evidence to support them: they are erroneous. In turn, this means that one important criterium for conspiracy theory is being met.

Another characteristic of conspiracy theories is that they cannot easily been proven to be false. None of the above-listed reasons are, in fact, difficult to falsify.

A final characteristic of conspiracy theories is that its proponents are ignoring obvious alternative explanations.

WHY ARE ALTERNATIVE THERAPIES NOT ADMITTED INTO THE REALM OF CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE?

Simply because they are not supported by sufficiently strong evidence for generating more good than harm.

So, yes, to some extent alternative medicine even is a conspiracy theory in disguise.

The fact that many SCAM-practitioners are latent or even overt anti-vaxxers has often been addressed on this blog. The fact that the anti-vaccination guru, Andrew Wakefield, has his fingers deep in the SCAM-pie is less well appreciated.

In case you forgot who Wakefield is, let me remind you. As a gastroenterologist at the London Royal Free Hospital, he published evidence in the Lancet (1998) suggesting that the MMR vaccination was a cause of autism. It was discovered to be fraudulent. In 2010, a statutory tribunal of the GMC found three dozen charges proved, including 4 counts of dishonesty and 12 counts involving the abuse of developmentally delayed children. Consequently, he was struck off the register and lives in the US ever since where he, amongst many other things, enjoys lecturing to homeopaths and chiropractors about the dangers of vaccination.

Since Trump, who seems to share Wakefield’s anti-vaxx stance, has become president of the US, Wakefield has managed to creep back in the limelight. The Guardian recently reported: At one of President Trump’s inaugural balls in January last year, he was quoted as contemplating the overthrow of the (pro-vaccine) US medical establishment in words that brought to mind Trump himself. “What we need now is a huge shakeup at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – a huge shakeup. We need that to change dramatically.”

In the US, Wakefield also founded the ‘Autism Media Channel’ which makes videos alleging a causal link between autism and the MMR vaccine. The film ‘Vaxxed’ was thus directed by Wakefield. It was put forward to premiere at the 2016 Tribeca film festival by Robert De Niro, the father of an autistic child. It alleges a cover-up of the alleged link between MMR and autism by the CDC – the institute Wakefield said needed a shake-up at the Trump inaugural ball. After much discussion, De Niro fortunately withdrew the film.

Wakefield’s private life has also seem significant changes. He is reported to have recently left his wife who had supported him throughout the debacle in the UK and is now ‘deliciously in love’ with the super-model and entrepreneur Elle Macpherson . Brian Burrowes, 48, who edited ‘Vaxxed’ was reported stating that he and Macpherson had begun dating after they were both guests at the ‘Doctors Who Rock‘ Awards in November last year. This event was to honour alternative medicine practitioners, with Macpherson handing out an award and Wakefield receiving one. Other awardees included Del Bigtree and Billy DeMoss DC.

Wakefield’s legacy in Europe is the recurrence of measles due to persistent doubts in vaccination safety. This regrettable phenomenon is fuelled by Wakefield’s multiple activities, including face-book, twitter and you-tube. Social media has provided an alternative to the “failings of mainstream media”, Wakefield was quoted in the Guardian saying – another phrase that could have come from a tweet by the US president himself. “In this country, it’s become so polarised now … No one knows quite what to believe,” Wakefield said. “So, people are turning increasingly to social media.”

And this is what I said about this strategy in today’s Times: “Such anti-vaccination propaganda is hugely harmful. It prompts many families to shun immunisations which means firstly they are unprotected, and secondly we as a people might lose herd immunity. The result is what we currently see throughout Europe: epidemics are threatening the lives of millions. It is in my view irresponsible for any institution to get involved in the anti-vaxx cult, particularly for universities who really should know better.”

Having yesterday been to a ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ event on MEDITATION in Cambridge (my home town since last year) I had to think about the subject quite a bit. As I have hardly covered this topic on my blog, I am today trying to briefly summarise my view on it.

The first thing that strikes me when looking at the evidence on meditation is that it is highly confusing. There seem to be:

  • a lack of clear definitions,
  • hundreds of studies, most of which are of poor or even very poor quality,
  • lots of people with ’emotional baggage’,
  • plenty of strange links to cults and religions,
  • dozens of different meditation methods and regimen,
  • unbelievable claims by enthusiasts,
  • lots of weirdly enthusiastic followers.

What was confirmed yesterday is the fact that, once we look at the reliable medical evidence, we are bound to find that the health claims of various meditation techniques are hugely exaggerated. There is almost no strong evidence to suggest that meditation does affect any condition. The small effects that do emerge from some meta-analyses could easily be due to residual bias and confounding; it is not possible to rigorously control for placebo effects in clinical trials of meditation.

Another thing that came out clearly yesterday is the fact that meditation might not be as risk-free as it is usually presented. Several cases of psychoses after meditation are on record; some of these are both severe and log-lasting. How often do they happen? Nobody knows! Like with most alternative therapies, there is no reporting system in place that could possibly give us anything like a reliable answer.

For me, however, the biggest danger with (certain forms of) meditation is not the risk of psychosis. It is the risk of getting sucked into a cult that then takes over the victim and more or less destroys his or her personality. I have seen this several times, and it is a truly frightening phenomenon.

In our now 10-year-old book THE DESKTOP GUIDE TO COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, we included a chapter on meditation. It concluded that “meditation appears to be safe for most people and those with sufficient motivation to practise regularly will probably find a relaxing experience. Evidence for effectiveness in any indication is week.” Even today, this is not far off the mark, I think. If I had to re-write it now, I would perhaps mention the potential for harm and also add that, as a therapy, the risk/benefit balance of meditation fails to be convincingly positive. 

PS

I highly recommend ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ events to anyone who likes stimulating talks and critical thinking.

The two German authors start their article (it is in German but has an English abstract to which I refer here) by claiming that “homeopathy is steadily gaining in sympathy in the population.” This is a very odd statement, considering that the sales figures in Germany and elsewhere have, in fact, been declining. Any homeopathy-paper with such an opening is naturally of interest to me.

As I read on, I find further surprises: “the possible effectiveness and the modes of action are currently not scientifically elucidated.” These are two big assumptions which happen to be both untrue:

  1. The effectiveness of homeopathy has now been tested in about 500 clinical trials, and the totality of the reliable evidence from these studies fails to show that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are more than placebos.
  2. The mode of action of homeopathy isn’t “not scientifically elucidated“, but the relevant science tells us that there cannot be a mode of action that is in line with the laws of nature as we understand them today.

And the surprises keep on coming: “there is a whole series of positive evidence for the effects of homeopathic remedies for mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders and addiction.” This statement is not in keeping with the results of a systematic review (which, by the way was authored by ardent homeopaths); here is the abstract:

_________________________________________________________________________________________

OBJECTIVE:

To systematically review placebo-controlled randomized trials of homeopathy for psychiatric conditions.

DATA SOURCES:

Eligible studies were identified using the following databases from database inception to April 2010: PubMed, CINAHL, PsycINFO, Hom-Inform, Cochrane CENTRAL, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine grantee publications database, and ClinicalTrials.gov. Gray literature was also searched using Google, Google Scholar, the European Committee for Homeopathy, inquiries with homeopathic experts and manufacturers, and the bibliographic lists of included published studies and reviews. Search terms were as follows: (homeopath* or homoeopath*) and (placebo or sham) and (anxiety or panic or phobia or post-traumatic stress or PTSD or obsessive-compulsive disorder or fear or depress* or dysthym* or attention deficit hyperactivity or premenstrual syndrome or premenstrual disorder or premenstrual dysphoric disorder or traumatic brain injury or fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalitis or insomnia or sleep disturbance). Searches included only English-language literature that reported randomized controlled trials in humans.

STUDY SELECTION:

Trials were included if they met 7 criteria and were assessed for possible bias using the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) 50 guidelines. Overall assessments were made using the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation procedure. Identified studies were grouped into anxiety or stress, sleep or circadian rhythm complaints, premenstrual problems, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, mild traumatic brain injury, and functional somatic syndromes.

RESULTS:

Twenty-five eligible studies were identified from an initial pool of 1,431. Study quality according to SIGN 50 criteria varied, with 6 assessed as good, 9 as fair, and 10 as poor. Outcome was unrelated to SIGN quality. Effect size could be calculated in 16 studies, and number needed to treat, in 10 studies. Efficacy was found for the functional somatic syndromes group (fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome), but not for anxiety or stress. For other disorders, homeopathy produced mixed effects. No placebo-controlled studies of depression were identified. Meaningful safety data were lacking in the reports, but the superficial findings suggested good tolerability of homeopathy. A funnel plot in 13 studies did not support publication bias (χ(2)(1) = 1.923, P = .166).

CONCLUSIONS:

The database on studies of homeopathy and placebo in psychiatry is very limited, but results do not preclude the possibility of some benefit.

___________________________________________________________________________________

And specifically for depression, another review (also by proponents of homeopathy) is available; here is its abstract:

OBJECTIVE:

To systematically review the research evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for the treatment of depression and depressive disorders.

METHODS:

A comprehensive search of major biomedical databases including MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, PsycINFO and the Cochrane Library was conducted. Specialist complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) databases including AMED, CISCOM and Hom-Inform were also searched. Additionally, efforts were made to identify unpublished and ongoing research using relevant sources and experts in the field. Relevant research was categorised by study type and appraised according to study design. Clinical commentaries were obtained for studies reporting clinical outcomes.

RESULTS:

Only two randomised controlled trials (RCTs) were identified. One of these, a feasibility study, demonstrated problems with recruitment of patients in primary care. Several uncontrolled and observational studies have reported positive results including high levels of patient satisfaction but because of the lack of a control group, it is difficult to assess the extent to which any response is due to specific effects of homeopathy. Single-case reports/studies were the most frequently encountered clinical study type. We also found surveys, but no relevant qualitative research studies were located.: Adverse effects reported appear limited to ‘remedy reactions’ (‘aggravations’) including temporary worsening of symptoms, symptom shifts and reappearance of old symptoms. These remedy reactions were generally transient but in one study, aggravation of symptoms caused withdrawal of the treatment in one patient.

CONCLUSIONS:

A comprehensive search for published and unpublished studies has demonstrated that the evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy in depression is limited due to lack of clinical trials of high quality. Further research is required, and should include well-designed controlled studies with sufficient numbers of participants. Qualitative studies aimed at overcoming recruitment and other problems should precede further RCTs. Methodological options include the incorporation of preference arms or uncontrolled observational studies. The highly individualised nature of much homeopathic treatment and the specificity of response may require innovative methods of analysis of individual treatment response.

____________________________________________________________________________________

Back to the new article I started discussing above. Its authors make a vague attempt at being reasonable: “It is clear that homoeopathic remedies can only be used as an add-on and not alone.” I find this statement slightly puzzling. If (as the authors assume) homeopathy is effective for mental disorders, why not on its own? Can a therapy that must not be used as a sole treatment be called effective?

The authors continue with another caveat:  “These remedies belong in the hands of physicians experienced in homeopathic and psychiatric psychopharmacology.” That’s actually quite funny! As the average homeopath has no experience in psychiatric psychopharmacology, they must not use homeopathy for mental conditions. I would agree with the conclusion but not with the reason given for it.

And now to the ‘grand finale’, the conclusion: “It would be advisable to at least try out homeopathy for the well-being of the patient not only in the case of very mild disorders but also in severe chronic cases, since due to the generally good tolerability, no avoidable disadvantage should result.” That sort of conclusion makes me almost speechless. The evidence fails to show that it works, yet it is ADVISABLE to use it in severe chronic cases!

Such articles suggest to me that homeopathy is a cult where logic and reason are irrelevant and need to be supressed. They also indicate that something is amiss with medical publishing. How can it be that, in 2018, ‘Der Nervenarzt’ (or any other medical journal for that matter) can be so bar of critical thinking to publish such dangerously misleading nonsense? ‘Der Nervenarzt‘, by the way, claims to be an internationally recognized journal addressing neurologists and psychiatrists working in clinical or practical environments. Essential findings and current information from neurology, psychiatry as well as neuropathology, neurosurgery up to psychotherapy are presented.

It’s still ‘HOMEOPATHIC AWARENESS WEEK’. What better time for introducing you to one of the most bewildering aspect of this bizarre therapy?

Homeopathy is not just being promoted as a treatment for humans and animals, it is also advocated for plants. There are plenty of websites about this that give concrete advice such as this one: “Try the key symptom of a remedy that you would normally give to a person, on plants. For example, in cases of freezing where the leaves turn to a light or silvery colour, use Aconite 200 CH. When the leaves are more of a reddish colour use Belladonna 200 CH. Just like with a feverish child. If the child is pale then you know it is an Aconite fever. If is extremely red on the other hand, like a hot tomato, then the remedy is Belladonna. And you see this on the leaves too. You simply convert it one to one.”

Given this school of thought within homeopathy (not even Hahnemann would have dreamt this up), it seems only logical to use plants also for attempts to prove that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are more than pure placebos.

Weird?

Not to homeopaths!

Not even to some academic researchers within the realm of homeopathy.

The authors of this systematic review evaluated publications on plant-based test systems. A literature search was conducted in online databases and specific journals, including publications from 2008 to 2017 dealing with plant-based test systems in homeopathic basic research. To be included, they had to contain statistical analysis and fulfil quality criteria according to a pre-defined manuscript information score (MIS). Publications scoring at least 5 points (maximum 10 points) were assumed to be adequate. They were analysed for the use of adequate controls, outcome and reproducibility.

Seventy-four publications on plant-based test systems were found. Thirty-nine publications were either abstracts or proceedings of conferences and were excluded. From the remaining 35 publications, 26 reached a score of 5 or higher in the MIS. Adequate controls were used in 13 of these publications. All of them described specific effects of homeopathic preparations. The publication quality still varied: a substantial number of publications (23%) did not adequately document the methods used. Four reported on replication trials. One replication trial found effects of homeopathic preparations comparable to the original study. Three replication trials failed to confirm the original study but identified possible external influencing factors. Five publications described novel plant-based test systems. Eight trials used systematic negative control experiments to document test system stability.

The authors concluded that, regarding research design, future trials should implement adequate controls to identify specific effects of homeopathic preparations and include systematic negative control experiments. Further external and internal replication trials, and control of influencing factors, are needed to verify results. Standardised test systems should be developed.

Really, just one (!) replication trial found effects of homeopathic preparations comparable to the original study? And yet the authors do not arrive at the only possible conclusion that is based on the actual data presented?

THE AVAILABLE EVIDENCE FAILS TO SHOW THAT PLANT-BASED TEST SYSTEMS PROVIDE SOUND EVIDENCE TO SUGGEST THAT THEY ARE USEFUL OR THAT HIGHLY DILUTED HOMEOPATHICS ARE DIFFERENT FROM PLACEBOS.

But there are other things which seem odd here. The very first two sentences of the abstract of the above article read as follows: Plant-based test systems have been described as a useful tool for investigating possible effects of homeopathic preparations. The last reviews of this research field were published in 2009/2011.

This is odd because there is a very similar review dated 2015 (what is more, it is by some of the authors who also did the new review); it concluded: Plant models appear to be a useful approach for investigating basic research questions relating to homeopathic preparations, but more independent replication trials are needed in order to verify the results found in single experiments. Adequate controls and SNC experiments should be implemented on a routine basis to exclude false-positive results.

Why do the authors mislead us so badly?

Ahh, I see! They are affiliated to the following institutions:

  • Centre for Complementary Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Institute for Infection Prevention and Hospital Epidemiology, University of Freiburg, Germany
  • Institute of Integrative Medicine, University of Witten/Herdecke, Witten, Germany
  • Institute of Complementary Medicine, University of Bern, Switzerland.
  • Hiscia Institute, Arlesheim, Switzerland
  • Crystal Lab, Landgoed Roepaen, Ottersum, Netherlands.

Could they have an interest in perpetuating the notion of homeopathy (for plants)?

Could it be that these researchers are less than objective?

So what?

No reason to make a fuss, because no harm done!

Not entirely true: some might choke laughing about the idea of treating plants with highly diluted, shaken water.

We have discussed the NHMRC report on homeopathy several times – see, for instance, here, here and here. Perhaps understandably, homeopaths have great difficulties accepting its negative findings, and have complained about it ever since it was published. Now, a very detailed and well-researched analysis has become available of both the report and its criticism. Here I take the liberty to copy and (clumsily) translate its conclusions; if you can read German, I highly recommend studying the full document.

START OF MY TRANSLATION

The criticism of the NHMRC review is very voluminous and highlights many different aspects of the background, the methodology, the execution and the unwanted results from a homeopathic perspective. The very engaging discussions in the general public about this document and its flaws are, however, relatively meaningless: the NHMRC arrives at exactly the same conclusions as the employee of the Homeopathic Research Institute (HRI), Mathie, in his reviews of 2014 and 2017.

In both reviews, Mathie evaluated a total of 107 primary studies and found only 2 trials that could be rated as qualitatively good, that is to say constituting reliable evidence. Mathie did upgrade 2 further studies to the category of reliable evidence, however, this was in violation of the procedures proscribed in the study protocol.

The criticism of the NHMRC review was not able to make a single valid rebuttal. No condition could be identified for which homeopathy is clearly superior to placebo. This is all the more important, as Mathie avoided the mistakes that constituted the most prominent alleged criticisms of the NHMRC report.

  • Since Mathie and most of his co-authors are affiliated with organisations of homeopathy, an anti-homeopathy bias can be excluded.
  • Mathie conducted classic reviews and even differentiated between individualised and non-individualised homeopathy.
  • Mathie did not exclude studies below a certain sample size.

Yet, in both reviews, he draws the same conclusion.

In view of the truly independent replications of an employee of the HRI, we can be sure that there are, in fact, no solid proofs for the effectiveness of homeopathy. The claim of a  strong efficacy, equivalent to conventional medicines, that is made by homeopathy’s advocates is therefore not true.

END OF MY TRANSLATION

And here is the original German text:

Die Kritik an dem Review des NHMRC ist sehr umfangreich und beleuchtet sehr viele verschiedene Facetten über das Umfeld, die Methodik und die Durchführung sowie das aus Sicht der Homöopathen unerwünschte Ergebnis selbst. Die in der Öffentlichkeit sehr engagierte Diskussion um diese Arbeit und ihre möglichen Unzulänglichkeiten sind jedoch relativ bedeutungslos: Das NHMRC kommt zu genau dem gleichen Ergebnis wie Mathie als Mitarbeiter des HRI in seinen in 2014 und 2017 veröffentlichten systematischen Reviews:

Insgesamt hat Mathie in beiden Reviews 107 Einzelstudien untersucht und fand nur zwei Studien, die als qualitativ gut („low risk of bias“), also als zuverlässige Evidenz betrachtet werden können. Mathie hat zwar vier weitere Studien zur zuverlässigen Evidenz aufgewertet, was allerdings im Widerspruch zu den üblichen Vorgehensweisen steht und im Studienprotokoll nicht vorgesehen war.

Die Kritik am Review des NHMRC hat keinen einzigen Punkt fundiert widerlegen können. Man konnte keine Indikation finden, bei der sich die Homöopathie als klar über Placebo hinaus wirksam erwiesen hätte. Diese Punkte sind umso bedeutsamer, weil Mathie die am NHMRC hauptsächlich kritisierten Fehler nicht gemacht hat:

  • Als Mitarbeiter des HRI und mit Autoren, die überwiegend für Homöopathie-affine Organisationen arbeiten, ist eine Voreingenommenheit gegen die Homöopathie auszuschließen.
  • Mathie hat klassische Reviews ausgeführt, sogar getrennt zwischen einzelnen Ausprägungen (individualisierte Homöopathie und nicht-individualisierte Homöopathie).
  • Mathie hat keine Größenbeschränkung der Studien berücksichtigt.

Er kommt aber dennoch zweimal zum gleichen Ergebnis wie das NHMRC.

Angesichts der wirklich als unabhängig anzusehenden Bestätigung der Ergebnisse des NHMRC durch einen Mitarbeiter des Homeopathy Research Institute kann man sicher davon ausgehen, dass es tatsächlich keine belastbaren Wirkungsnachweise für die Homöopathie gibt und dass die von ihren Anhängern behauptete starke, der konventionellen Medizin gleichwertige oder gar überlegene Wirksamkeit der Homöopathie nicht gegeben ist.

I do apologise for my clumsy translation and once again encourage those who can to study the detailed original in full.

My conclusion of this (and indeed of virtually all criticism of homeopathy) is that homeopaths are just as unable to accept criticism as an evangelic believer is going to accept any rational argument against his belief. In other words, regardless of how convincing the evidence, homeopaths will always dismiss it – or, to put it in a nutshell: HOMEOPATHY IS A CULT.

This is too wonderful (I found it on Twitter where it was posted by ‘Doctors Leonard and Michael Valentine’, chiropractors at Valentine Chiropractic in Fountain Valley, CA.) – I have to show it to you.

This could almost pass without a comment. But for what it’s worth, here are my 7 points:

  1. platitude,
  2. platitude,
  3. no, they do not easily move out of alignment, and if they do, you are severely ill and need urgent treatment but not chiropractic,
  4. subluxations as dreamt up by chiropractors are a myth; they simply do not exist,
  5. it is vital that we don’t disclose this BS, if not chiros need to find new jobs,
  6. chiros pretend to find subluxations because this is their livelihood,
  7. pathetic platitude.

 

Orac recently lost his rag over JOHN WEEKS, editor of JCAM (see also here, here, here and here), and was less than appreciative of his recent comments on the Samueli-donation. Personally, I think that this was a bit harsh. To compensate the poor chap for such an injustice, I herewith offer John a place in my ‘Alt Med Hall of Fame’.

There he is in good company:

Deepak Chopra (US entrepreneur)

Cheryl Hawk (US chiropractor)

David Peters (osteopathy, homeopathy, UK)

Nicola Robinson (TCM, UK)

Peter Fisher (homeopathy, UK)

Simon Mills (herbal medicine, UK)

Gustav Dobos (various, Germany)

Claudia Witt (homeopathy, Germany and Switzerland)

George Lewith (acupuncture, UK)

John Licciardone (osteopathy, US)

have all been honoured in the same way.

But John is special!

I have mentioned him several times before (see here, here and here); what makes him special, in my view, is that he is such a shining example of an expert in ‘integrative medicine’. He calls himself a “a writer, speaker, chronicler and organizer whose work in the movement for integrative health” and proudly presents his lifetime achievement award (I urge you to read it – everyone who is anyone in the US quackery-cult pored a little praise over John – but be careful, you might feel acutely nauseous). Towards the end of this document, John adds some self-praise by summarising the many other ‘HONORS’ he has received:

  • – For public education, American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (1988)
  • – For role in historic regional accreditation of a college of natural health sciences, Bastyr College/now Bastyr University (1989)
  • – Commencement speaker, Bastyr College (1989)
  • – Honorary Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, Bastyr University (1992)
  • – For service, American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (1993)
  • – For service, Washington Mental Health Counselors Association (1995)
  • – Commencement speaker, Northwestern Health Sciences University (2010)
  • – Honorary Doctor of Laws, National University of Health Sciences (2011)
  • – Honorary Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (2012)
  • – Commencement speaker, New York Chiropractic College (2013)
  • – Champion of Naturopathic Medicine, American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (2013)

So what? I hear you say, what is so special about that?

I will tell you what is special:

  • John is not a doctor,
  • John is not a practitioner,
  • John is not a scientist,
  • John has not published anything that we might call research,
  • John has not studied any healthcare-related subject,
  • John has, as far as I can see, no real university degree at all.

I find this remarkable and wonderful! It shows us like few other things what to think of the alternative medicine-cult. Not only can truly anyone become president in the US (as the last election has demonstrated); in the US anyone can become a celebrated and honoured champion of alternative medicine as well!

Welcome in my ‘Hall of Fame’ John!

Shinrin-yoku means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has, according to its proponents, become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers primarily in Japan and South Korea have established a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest… there have been many scientific studies that are demonstrating the mechanisms behind the healing effects of simply being in wild and natural areas. (some of this research is available here). For example, many trees give off organic compounds that support our “NK” (natural killer) cells that are part of our immune system’s way of fighting cancer.

The claimed benefits of Shinrin-yoku are remarkable:

  • Boosted immune system functioning, with an increase in the count of the body’s Natural Killer (NK) cells.
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved mood
  • Increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD
  • Accelerated recovery from surgery or illness
  • Increased energy level
  • Improved sleep
  • Deeper and clearer intuition
  • Increased flow of energy
  • Increased capacity to communicate with the land and its species
  • Increased flow of eros/life force
  • Deepening of friendships
  • Overall increase in sense of happiness

But is any of this really true?

The aim of this state-of-the-art review was to summarise empirical research conducted on the physiological and psychological effects of Shinrin-Yoku. Research published from 2007 to 2017 was considered. A total of 64 studies met the inclusion criteria. According to the authors, they show that health benefits associated with the immersion in nature continue to be currently researched. Longitudinal research, conducted worldwide, is needed to produce new evidence of the relationships associated with Shinrin-Yoku and clinical therapeutic effects. Nature therapy as a health-promotion method and potential universal health model is implicated for the reduction of reported modern-day “stress-state” and “technostress.”

Odd?

Yes!

A look at the primary studies reveals that they are usually small and of poor quality.

Perhaps a brand new  review aimed more specifically at evaluating preventive or therapeutic effects of Shinrin-Yoku on blood pressure can tell us more. The authors considered all published, randomized, controlled trials, cohort studies, and comparative studies that evaluated the effects of the forest environment on changes in systolic blood pressure. Twenty trials involving 732 participants were reviewed. Systolic and diastolic blood pressure of patients submitted to the forest environment was significantly lower than that of controls. The authors concluded that this systematic review shows a significant effect of Shinrin-yoku on reduction of blood pressure.

I find this paper odd as well:

  • it lacks important methodological detail;
  • the authors included not just controlled clinical trials but all sorts of ‘studies’;
  • there is no assessment of the methodological rigor of the primary trials (from what I could see, they were mostly too poor to draw any conclusions from them).

What does all of this mean?

I have no problems in assuming that relaxation in a forest is beneficial in many ways and a nice experience.

But why call this a therapy?

It is relaxation!

Why make so many unsubstantiated claims?

And why study it in such obviously flawed ways?

All this does, I fear, is giving science a bad name.

I was surprised to receive this email yesterday: “Hello Edzard Ernst, You may remember I got in touch last week regarding losing a loved one to the ravages of drugs or alcohol. I just wanted to remind you that Narconon is here to help. For over fifty years Narconon drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres have been successfully reversing the tide of addiction for men and woman from all walks of life. The Narconon programme has saved them from the misery of addiction, and the potential of an early grave. We not only address the cause of the addiction, we resolve them…”

The email was signed by a man from ‘Narconon International’. First I thought someone has been counting the empty bottles in my bin, then I read it again and noticed the word ‘NARCONON’ and remembered that I once wrote about it. A quick search located my article from THE GUARDIAN 2012:

Imagine a therapy that “enables an individual to rid himself of the harmful effects of drugs, toxins and other chemicals that lodge in the body and create a biochemical barrier to spiritual well-being“. If you were told that the treatment was entirely natural and had already “enabled hundreds of thousands to free themselves from the harmful effects of drugs and toxins and so achieve spiritual gains”, wouldn’t you be tempted to try it?

Who doesn’t want a body free of nasty chemicals? And who wouldn’t be delighted at the chance to counter a growing threat to an “advancement in mental … wellbeing”?

These claims are being made for the “Purification Rundown” (“Purif” for short) and the closely related Narconon detox programmes, which mainly consist of regular exercise, sauna and nutrition, with industrial doses of vitamins and minerals added for good measure. Some of the claims are quite specific: the Purif programme is supposed to increase your IQ, reduce the level of cancer-causing agents in your body, and even enable you to lose weight easily and quickly. The Narconon programme is more specifically targeted at drug and alcohol dependency and is claimed to have an impressive success rate of 75%.

Both programmes were developed by L Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) and are currently marketed by the Church of Scientology. The CoS is not generally known to be an organisation that promotes healthcare programmes. Hubbard, the pulp-fiction writer who founded the CoS, portrayed himself somewhat over-optimistically as a pioneer, innovator and nuclear physicist.

He taught his followers that, at their core, humans contain a “thetan”. After creating the universe, thetans accidentally became trapped in physical bodies and, through scientology, we can restore the immortal, omnipotent, god-like powers of the “thetan” within us. Weird stuff that is the preserve of Hollywood eccentrics, you might think, but perhaps the CoS’s detox-ventures are an attempt to conquer new territory?

A typical course of treatment lasts several weeks and consists of many hours of exercise and sauna every day. This regimen is supplemented with megadoses of vitamins and minerals, which can cause problems. Niacin, one vitamin that is given in high doses as part of the regimen, can be particularly dangerous. The US National Institutes of Health warns that at high doses it can cause “liver problems, gout, ulcers of the digestive tract, loss of vision, high blood sugar, irregular heartbeat, and other serious problems.” It should not be taken by people who already have liver damage.

Seven fatalities of people undergoing the Narconon programme are currently being investigated in Oklahoma, although the CoS says these deaths are not connected with the treatment regimen itself.

Whatever the truth regarding these deaths, a review of the evidence about the treatment regimen’s effectiveness – carried out by the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services in 2008 – found no good evidence that the Narconon programme works:

There is currently no reliable evidence for the effectiveness of Narconon as a primary or secondary drug prevention program. This is partly due to the insufficient research evidence about Narconon and partly due to the non-experimental nature of the few studies that exist.

The claim that such detox treatments eliminate toxins from the body is, of course, easily testable. All we would need to do is define what toxin we are talking about and measure the change in levels of that toxin compared with a control group of volunteers who did not receive the detox.

But such studies are not available. Why? Do the marketing men believe in their own claims? Maybe they feel that profits and evidence are like fire and water? Or possibly the thetans have an aversion to science?

If you think that the Purif, Narconon or any other form of alternative detox eliminates toxins, you might be mistaken. Most clients have lost some money, many have lost their ability to think straight, some may even have lost their lives. But there is no reliable evidence that they have actually lost any toxins.

END OF MY 2012 ARTICLE

In 2012, I found no evidence to suggest that NARCONON works. Now, I looked again and found this article reporting a non-randomised, controlled study:

“In 2004, Narconon International developed a multi-module, universal prevention curriculum for high school ages based on drug abuse etiology, program quality management data, prevention theory and best practices. We review the curriculum and its rationale and test its ability to change drug use behavior, perceptions of risk/benefits, and general knowledge. After informed parental consent, approximately 1000 Oklahoma and Hawai’i high school students completed a modified Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) Participant Outcome Measures for Discretionary Programs survey at three testing points: baseline, one month later, and six month follow-up. Schools assigned to experimental conditions scheduled the Narconon curriculum between the baseline and one-month follow-up test; schools in control conditions received drug education after the six-month follow-up. Student responses were analyzed controlling for baseline differences using analysis of covariance. At six month follow-up, youths who received the Narconon drug education curriculum showed reduced drug use compared with controls across all drug categories tested. The strongest effects were seen in all tobacco products and cigarette frequency followed by marijuana. There were also significant reductions measured for alcohol and amphetamines. The program also produced changes in knowledge, attitudes and perception of risk. The eight-module Narconon curriculum has thorough grounding in substance abuse etiology and prevention theory. Incorporating several historically successful prevention strategies this curriculum reduced drug use among youths.”

The question arises: would I send anyone to the NARCONON programme?

My answer is NO!

Not because the trial is lousy (which it is) and not because the programme is too expensive (which it is); I would not send anyone to any institution that has even the slightest links to Scientology.

 

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