What is pseudoscience and how can it be differentiated from science? This ‘demarcation problem’ has occupied many of our best minds and which nevertheless is largely unresolved. Two brave academics have recently published a paper aimed at providing organisations within the justice system with an overview of:
a) what science is and is not;
b) what constitutes an empirically driven, theoretically founded, peer-reviewed approach;
c) how to distinguish science from pseudoscience.
In it, they demonstrate that not all information which is presented as comprehensively evaluated is methodologically reliable for use in the justice system. Even though it does not really solve the old demarcation problem, I found their article important and informative and therefore take the liberty of quoting a brief excerpt here:
Organisations within the justice system do use empirically and theoretically supported approaches. However, some implemented approaches lack empirical evidence. In more perturbing cases, police officers, lawyers and judges may resort to pseudoscience – that is, bodies of information that may appear to be scientific but, in reality, lack the characteristics of scientific knowledge. … if members of the justice community are not advised about the publishing process then pseudoscientists can be fairly proficient at providing counterarguments. In addition, pseudoscientists can use several other fallacious arguments to achieve maximum support for their approaches.
For example, pseudoscientists might argue that their approaches are supported by a select number of articles, theses or books, and that they are reliable due to their acceptance by important organisations. However, if upon reading such literature it becomes apparent that there is no empirical or theoretical support, or that the steps leading to the conclusions are not thoroughly justified (be this methodologically or through evaluation), the implementation of their approaches remains merely destitute of vision. In addition, such reference to important organisations – often known as ‘name-dropping’–is detrimental by nature; doing so lends support to the notion that one might be unable to distinguish pseudoscience from science and may not understand the role that science plays in developing better professional practice.
Fallacious arguments from pseudoscientists can also address negative comments in a way that attempts to discourage further criticism from members of the scientific community. They can engage in legal threats and ad hominem attacks – that is, opposition to an argument ‘by questioning the personal circumstances or personal trustworthiness of the arguer who advanced it’. For example, if academics raise concerns regarding a particular pseudoscience without having attended its associated seminars, pseudoscientists might assert that the academics do not have the required understanding and that, as such, their criticism is of no value. If the academics had indeed attended the seminars, the pseudoscientists might instead suggest that their concerns are raised out of obscure or malicious reasons. Pseudoscientists might even state that they are criticised due to their revolutionary approach and refer to a quote dubiously attributed to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: ‘All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident’. However, as Sagan rightly points out,
the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.
As reported previously the NHS NATURAL HEALTH SCHOOL in Harrogate, is a service that offered a range of free complementary therapy treatments to patients and their relatives who are affected by a cancer diagnosis and are either receiving their cancer treatment at Harrogate or live in the Harrogate and Rural District.
This NHS school offered alternative treatments to cancer patients and claim that they know from experience, that when Complementary Therapies are integrated into patient care we are able to deliver safe, high quality care which fulfils the needs of even the most complex of patients.
In addition, they also ran courses for alternative practitioners. Their reflexology course, for instance, covered all of the following:
- Explore the history and origins of Reflexology
- Explore the use of various mediums used in treatment including waxes, balms, powders and oils
- Explore the philosophy of holism and its role within western bio medicine
- Reading the feet/hands and mapping the reflex points
- Relevant anatomy, physiology and pathology
- Managing a wide range of conditions
- Legal implications
- Cautions and contraindications
- Assessment and client care
- Practical reflexology skills and routines
- Treatment planning
I imagine that the initiators of the school are full of the very best, altruistic intentions. I therefore had considerable difficulties in criticising them. Yet, I do strongly feel that the NHS should be based on good evidence; and that much of the school’s offerings seemed to be the exact opposite. In fact, the NHS-label was being abused for giving undeserved credibility to outright quackery.
Therefore, I did something I do rarely: I filed an official complaint in September 2019.
What happened next?
I sent several reminders; and what happened then?
I got several assurances that a response was imminent.
And then I forgot all about it.
So, I was surprised to receive this email yesterday from the chief executive of the HARROGATE AND DISTRICT NHS FOUNDATION TRUST (I did not change or correct anything):
Thank you for contacting our Chair about the Natural Health School and my apologies for the extended delay in replying to you. We have reflected on the points you raised and I have set out a summary of this below in respect of the key issues.
- As a result of colleagues who set up the service having moved on to other posts outside of the Trust we have not been able to understand how the service was named. However, I agree that the terminology “NHS Natural Health School” could be interpreted in a certain way and as such we have agreed it should instead be referred to as the Natural Health School only to avoid any interpretation that it has national NHS endorsement. We will amend the information on the website and other material to reflect that the service is endorsed by the Trust.
- The service is hosted by HDFT, in that staff are employed by the Trust, but it is funded through charitable contributions. No NHS resources are used in providing the school, or the complementary therapies which are provided to patients receiving treatment at the Sir Robert Ogden Centre.
- There is no intention to assert that the services provided (ie the complementary therapies) are treatment for cancer. The ‘treatments’ referred to are complementary therapy treatments and are described as such. They are focused on wellbeing concurrently to the medical treatment of cancer, and we are satisfied that this is clear in the current description.
- Whilst recognising the differences of views on the complementary therapy treatments, the service regularly secures feedback from patients and this has been positive and as such we continue to offer it to those patients who would wish to take it up.
- The school provides training to allow participants to achieve a qualification which is awarded at level 3 by the International Therapies Examination Council.
I hope this provides clarity on the context to the service.
… … …
I find this response more than a little unsatisfactory; here are just a few points I find worth mentioning:
- As far as I can see, apart of the actual name of the school (it is now called ‘NATURAL HEALTH SCHOOL’), very little has changed. In particular, a NHS link is still implied in multiple different ways.
- To claim that ‘we have not been able to understand how the service was named’ seems like someone is taking the Mikey.
- So is the remark that ‘the terminology “NHS Natural Health School” could be interpreted in a certain way’.
- The statement ‘there is no intention to assert that the services provided (ie the complementary therapies) are treatment for cancer’ is simply untrue; symptomatic treatment of cancer is still a treatment for cancer!
- If the treatments are focussed on wellbeing, they nevertheless should be backed by evidence to show that they improve wellbeing. The label ‘complementary’ does not absolve a therapy from the need to be evidence-based.
- There may be ‘different views’ on complementary therapies; yet, there is only one set of evidence – and that fails to support several of the treatments on offer.
- Positive feedback from patients is no substitute for evidence.
I am not sure whether I should reply to the above letter. I take little pleasure in embarrassing chief excecutives.
WHAT DO YOU THINK I SHOULD DO?
In so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), there is never a dull moment; for me, the last decade was hardly an exception.
2010: Simon Singh and I had just published our book ‘Trick of Treatment‘(see also below), and consequently, the SCAM community (after having been more than a little suspicious of me for years) decided to oust me. At my university, I had major battles after the complaint by Prince Charles’ private secretary regarding the ‘Smallwood report‘. I decided to preserve my department by going into early retirement.
2011: This plan did not work out. I did retire, but the department sadly was closed down. The deal was that I get re-employed by my university on a half-time basis and help to find and appoint a successor.
2012: This did not work out either. We did find one suitable candidate, but they offered him terms that were totally unacceptable. The result: no more ‘Complementary Medicine’ at Exeter (I must admit, that was tough!). My wife and I thus sold our flat in Exeter and moved into rural Suffolk.
2013: My wife fell seriously ill, and we decided to move to France for an entire year to get her cured. This turned out to be the right decision; today she is alive and kicking.
2014: To prevent slowly going insane over all this, I had started writing my memoir.
2015: The book was published under the title ‘A scientist in wonderland’ and got unbelievably positive reviews. Today, this memoir is available also in German, Spanish and Korean. In the same year, I received the ‘John Maddox Award for standing up for science‘. I donated the prize money to the ‘Good Thinking Society’.
2016: While lecturing in Germany, I was invited by Springer to publish a book with them, and I chose the subject of homeopathy. The book entitled ‘Homeopathy, the undiluted facts‘ was later also published in German.
2017: I was awarded an Ockham Award at the QED. Sadly, I could not attend in person but Simon Singh received it in my name. We sold our house in Suffolk, moved to Cambridge, and also spent much of our time in France.
2018: After a perfect co-operation with the ethicist, Kevin Smith‘, our Springer book on the ethical issues raised by SCAM was published. It is entitled ‘More good than harm? The moral maze of complementary and alternative medicine‘ and received an award from the BMA. The same year, I also published my book ‘SCAM‘ which shortly after also was published in German.
2019: I published, again with Springer, an analysis of 150 SCAM modalities. Ioannidis et al published an analysis of 100 000 scientists of all fields. It implied that I am the most ‘influential’ researcher in the area of SCAM. This came just as unexpected as the US ‘Bookauthority’ naming our book ‘Trick or Treatment’ amongst the ‘best mental health books of all times’.
(Oh, I almost forgot: I also published ~500 Medline-listed papers as well as >1 700 blog posts and gave about 300 invited lectures during the last 10 years. Retirement turned out to be busy indeed.)
Yes, it was a decade full of action, worries, happiness, achievements and also true sadness. I hope I will still be around in 10 years to report about the next one.
I WISH ALL MY READERS A HAPPY AND HEALTHY NEW YEAR.
Whatever SCAM is, it is not an alternative to conventional medicine. Nevertheless, one might still ask why so many people pay for ‘unproven’ SCAM when they can have scientifically backed medicine at no extra expense. Chandola et al suggest that 44% who use CM hope for a cure, 30% fear adverse effects of mainstream drugs, and 27% are dissatisfied with conventional care. In a much larger survey conducted in the USA, Astin found that dissatisfaction with orthodox medicine was prevalent but did not predict use of SCAM. SCAM users tended to be better educated and to subscribe to a more ‘holistic’ philosophy of healthcare. Interestingly, they reported poorer health status than non-users. Moreover, SCAM attracts patients because it offers more personal autonomy or control and is less impersonal or high-tech than mainstream medicine. Finally patients, particularly those with chronic conditions, may simply try SCAM so as to leave no stone unturned.
‘Scientifically backed’ medicine may not be quite as helpful as one tends to assume at least not in the eyes of the patient. A survey of 1420 (mostly musculoskeletal) pain sufferers suggested that SCAMs were perceived as more successful than mainstream drugs. In fact, orthodox therapies such as parenteral injections and oral medications ranked only 8th and 11th, respectively. Perhaps more disturbingly, patients seem to experience the therapeutic encounter with SCAM practitioners as more satisfying, empathetic and informative than that with their general practitioners. While many physicians (rightly or wrongly) continue to see SCAM as a nuisance, maybe we should think again: SCAM’s popularity amounts to a biting criticism of mainstream medicine that ought to be taken seriously.
How are clinicians to reconcile the public demand for SCAM with the new zeal for evidence-based medicine? The apparently easy answer is to pursue a strategy of evidence-based SCAM. This is precisely what my department is doing. There are now about 2000 clinical trials in this diverse area. But clinical trials are often full of contradictions and seldom clarify clinical questions adequately. A US study, for instance, has contributed to increasing doubts about whether chiropractic is helpful for acute uncomplicated low back pain in a clinically relevant way. What we really need for informing clinicians’ decisions are systematic reviews incorporating the totality of the available data. For the past 5 years this has been the focus of my department’s work, and we have published a considerable number of such papers. The notion that SCAM is totally devoid of evidence is a cliché which, like many clichés, is not entirely true.
Undoubtedly, vast areas of uncertainty do remain. The more difficult question is, therefore, how should clinicians deal with their patients’ desire for SCAM in the absence of evidence? Embarrassingly few convincing answers are on offer. Physicians have become experts in dealing with uncertainty in many aspects of their work. A dose of common sense will usually go quite far. At the very least, doctors should know what type of treatments their patients are trying. Taking a detailed history should nowadays include asking specifically about use of SCAM. In order not to alienate patients, one should resist the temptation to be dismissive. If there are good reasons to warn of a certain form of SCAM, these are best offered in an objective manner. To give evidence-based advice, clinicians obviously have to be informed about the facts, and impartial information is hard to find. One ray of light in this relative darkness is the Cochrane Collaboration, which now has a ‘field’ working on SCAM. The number of systematic reviews available from the Cochrane database is growing rapidly.
Once a patient is using SCAM (with or against the doctor’s advice), it makes sense to monitor the effects. This increases the safety of the patient and contributes to the physician’s knowledge of and experience with SCAM. There is also a good argument for establishing working relationships with a selection of local SCAM therapists who have a good track record and adequate training. At present, communication between doctors and therapists is often poor or even non-existent. Surely this cannot be to the benefit of the patient.
For SCAM, the best chance of survival in a harsh climate of evidence-based medicine and increasing rationing of resources is to come up with the goods and demonstrate what treatments are effective, safe and cost-effective for which condition. For physicians, the best way of reconciling the ‘two worlds’ is to inform themselves adequately and guide their patients through the ‘SCAM maze’ with a generous helping of good common sense. For patients, last but not least, the best approach is to be cautious and remember that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
END OF QUOTE
Twenty years, and little has changed:
- There still are vast areas of uncertainty.
- Imparcial information about SCAM is still scarce.
- Patient demand for SCAM is still considerable.
- The implied criticism of conventional medicine is still not taken seriously.
- The communication between doctors and SCAM practitioners is still lamentable.
- Most doctors still do not include questions about SCAM in their medical history taking.
- Arguably, SCAM has become even less evidence-based.
- Most doctors remain blissfully uninformed about SCAM.
- Most of the claims made for SCAM are too good to be true.
I think you get the gist.
Carl Sagan was a giant in critical thinking and has inspired many, including myself. His book THE DEMON HAUTED WORLD is a classic. In it, he published his ‘BALONEY DETECTION KIT’. As it relates to SCAM and so much more that troubles us today, I today take the liberty of citing it here.
- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
- Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
- Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
- Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
- Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
- If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
- Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
- Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.
As I said, this is a good book; I warmly recommend it to you.
Many patients with chronic pain (CP) are prescribed opioids, a situation which has led to the much-discussed opioid crisis. Integrative medicine (IM), which combines pharmacological and so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), has been proposed as a solution. Yet, the role of SCAM therapies in reducing opioid use remains unclear.
This systematic review explored the effectiveness of the IM approach or any of the SCAM therapies to reduce or cease opioid use in CP patients. Electronic searches yielded 5,200 citations. Twenty-three studies were selected. Eight studies were randomized controlled trials, seven were retrospective studies, four studies were prospective observational, three were cross-sectional, and one was quasi-experimental. The majority of the studies showed that opioid use was reduced significantly after using IM/SCAM. Cannabinoids were among the most commonly investigated approaches in reducing opioid use, followed by multidisciplinary approaches, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and acupuncture. The majority of the studies had limitations related to sample size, duration, and study design.
The authors concluded that there is a small but defined body of literature demonstrating positive preliminary evidence that the IM approach including SCAM therapies can help in reducing opioid use. As the opioid crisis continues to grow, it is vital that clinicians and patients be adequately informed regarding the evidence and opportunities for IM/SCAM therapies for CP.
I am unimpressed by this review.
And here is why:
- Because of their design, most of the included studies do not allow any conclusions about cause and effect.
- The 8 RCTs that would allow such conclusions are mostly of poor quality.
- Some of the 8 RCTs are not even what the review authors claim to be. Here is just one example:
Background: Current levels and dangers of opioid use in the U.S. warrant the investigation of harm-reducing treatment alternatives.
Purpose: A preliminary, historical, cohort study was used to examine the association between enrollment in the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program (MCP) and opioid prescription use.
Methods: Thirty-seven habitual opioid using, chronic pain patients (mean age = 54 years; 54% male; 86% chronic back pain) enrolled in the MCP between 4/1/2010 and 10/3/2015 were compared to 29 non-enrolled patients (mean age = 60 years; 69% male; 100% chronic back pain). We used Prescription Monitoring Program opioid records over a 21 month period (first three months prior to enrollment for the MCP patients) to measure cessation (defined as the absence of opioid prescriptions activity during the last three months of observation) and reduction (calculated in average daily intravenous [IV] morphine dosages). MCP patient-reported benefits and side effects of using cannabis one year after enrollment were also collected.
Results: By the end of the 21 month observation period, MCP enrollment was associated with 17.27 higher age- and gender-adjusted odds of ceasing opioid prescriptions (CI 1.89 to 157.36, p = 0.012), 5.12 higher odds of reducing daily prescription opioid dosages (CI 1.56 to 16.88, p = 0.007), and a 47 percentage point reduction in daily opioid dosages relative to a mean change of positive 10.4 percentage points in the comparison group (CI -90.68 to -3.59, p = 0.034). The monthly trend in opioid prescriptions over time was negative among MCP patients (-0.64mg IV morphine, CI -1.10 to -0.18, p = 0.008), but not statistically different from zero in the comparison group (0.18mg IV morphine, CI -0.02 to 0.39, p = 0.081). Survey responses indicated improvements in pain reduction, quality of life, social life, activity levels, and concentration, and few side effects from using cannabis one year after enrollment in the MCP (ps<0.001).
Conclusions: The clinically and statistically significant evidence of an association between MCP enrollment and opioid prescription cessation and reductions and improved quality of life warrants further investigations on cannabis as a potential alternative to prescription opioids for treating chronic pain.
This study is evidently NOT an RCT!
Most of the 8 RCTs investigate whether SCAM is useful for weaning opioid-dependent patients off their drug. To equate this with the question whether IM/SCAM can reduce or cease opioid use in CP patients is, I think, wrong. The way to reduce opioid use in CP patients is to prescribe less opioids. And for prescribing less opioids, we need no SCAM but we need to remember what we learned in medical school: opioids are not for routine treatment of CP!
So, why do the authors of this review try to mislead us?
Could it have something to do with some of their affiliations and the bias that goes with it?
- Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, North York, Ontario, Canada.
- Australian Research Centre in Complementary and Integrative Medicine, University of Technology Sydney, Ultimo, Australia.
- Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, San Diego, California, USA.
What do you think?
So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) could easily be described as a business that exists mainly because it profits from the flaws of conventional medicine. I know, this is not a good definition, and I don’t want to suggest it as one, but I think it highlights an important aspect of SCAM.
Let me explain.
If we ask ourselves why consumers feel attracted to SCAM, we can identify a range of reasons, and several of them relate to the weaknesses of conventional medicine as it is practised today. For instance:
- People feel the need to have more time with their clinician in order to discuss their problems more fully. This means that their GP does not offer them sufficient time, empathy and compassion they crave.
- Patients are weary of the side-effects of drugs and prefer treatments that are gentle and safe. This shows that they realise that conventional medicine can cause harm and they hope to avoid this risk.
- Patients find it often hard to accept that their symptoms are ‘nothing to worry about’ and does not require any treatment at all. They prefer to hear that the clinician knows exactly what is wrong and can offer a therapy that puts it right.
Conventional medicine and the professionals who administer it have many flaws. Most doctors have such busy schedules that there is little time for building an empathetic therapeutic relationship with their patients. Thus they often palm them off with a prescription and fail to discuss the risks in sufficient detail. Even worse, they sometimes prescribe drugs in situations where none are needed and where a reassuring discussion would be more helpful. It is too easy to excuse such behaviours with work pressures; such flaws are serious and cannot be brushed under the carpet in this way.
Recently, the flawed behaviour of doctors has become the focus of media attention in the form of
- opioid over-prescribing
- over-use of anti-biotics.
In both cases, SCAM providers were quick to offer the solution.
- Acupuncturists and chiropractors claim that their treatments are sensible alternatives to opioids. Yet, there is no good evidence that either acupuncture or chiropractic have analgesic effects that are remotely comparable to those of opioids. They only are seemingly successful in cases where opioids were not needed in the first place.
- Homeopaths claim that their remedies can easily replace antibiotics. Yet, there is not a jot of evidence that homeopathics have antibiotic activity. They only are seemingly successful in cases where the antibiotic was not needed in the first place.
In both instances, SCAM is trying to profit from the weaknesses of conventional medicine. In both cases, the offered solutions are clearly bogus. Yet, in both cases, scientifically illiterate politicians are seriously considering the alleged solutions. Few seem to be smart enough to take a step backwards and contemplate the only viable solution to these problems. If doctors over-prescribe, they need to be stopped; and the best way to stop them is to give them adequate support, more time with their patients and adequate recognition of the importance of reassuring and talking to patients when they need it.
To put it differently:
The best way to reduce the use of bogus SCAMs is to make conventional medicine less flawed.
On this blog and elsewhere, I have repeatedly claimed that as early as 2002 I published data to show that UK homeopaths advise their patients against vaccinations.
So sorry, but this not entirely true!
The truth is that I had forgotten about this article published 1995 in the British Journal of General Practice. As it is quite short and reveals several interesting facts, allow me to provide it here in full:
Homoeopathic remedies are believed by doctors and patients to be almost totally safe. Is homoeopathic advice safe, for example on the subject of immunization? In order to answer this question, a questionnaire survey was undertaken in 1995 of all 45 homoeopaths listed in the Exeter ‘yellow pages’ business directory. A total of 23 replies (51%) were received, 10 from medically qualified and 13 from non-medically qualified homoeopaths.
The homoeopaths were asked to suggest which conditions they perceived as being most responsive to homoeopathy. The three most frequently cited conditions were allergies (suggested by 10 respondents), gynaecological problems (seven) and bowel problems (five). They were then asked to estimate the proportion of patients that were referred to them by orthodox doctors and the proportion that they referred to orthodox doctors. The mean estimated percentages were 1 % and 8%, respectively. The 23 respondents estimated that they spent a mean of 73 minutes on the first consultation.
The homoeopaths were asked whether they used or recommended orthodox immunization for children and whether they only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization. Seven of the 10 homoeopaths who were medically qualified recommended orthodox immunization but none of the 13 non-medically qualified homoeopaths did. One non-medically qualified homoeopath only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization.
Homoeopaths have been reported as being against orthodox immunization and advocating homoeopathic immunization for which no evidence of effectiveness exists. As yet there has been no attempt in the United Kingdom to monitor homoeopaths’ attitudes in this respect. The above findings imply that there may be a problem.
The British homoeopathic doctors’ organization (the Faculty of Homoeopathy) has distanced itself from the polemic of other homoeopaths against orthodox immunization, and editorials in the British Homoeopathic Journal call the abandonment of mass immunization ‘criminally irresponsible’ and ‘most unfortunate, in that it will be seen by most people as irresponsible and poorly based’.’ Homoeopathic remedies may be safe, but do all homoeopaths merit this attribute?
Yes indeed! These findings indicate that there may be a problem with non-medically trained homeopaths in the UK. It is good to see that now (24 years later) the NHS has taken note of it. At the same time, it is not at all good to see that non-medically trained homeopaths and their professional organisations have managed to remain in complete denial of it.
As reported, the Bavarian government has set aside almost half a million Euros for research to determine whether the over-use of antibiotics can be reduced by replacing them with homeopathic remedies. Homeopaths in and beyond Germany were delighted, of course, but many experts were bewildered (see also this or this, if you read German).
While the Bavarians are entering the planning stage of this research, I want to elaborate on the question what methodology might be employed for this task. As far as I can see, there are, depending on the precise research questions, various options.
IN VITRO TESTS OF HOMEOPATHICS
The most straight forward way to find out whether homeopathics are an alternative to antibiotics would be to screen them for antibiotic activity. For this, we would take all homeopathic remedies in several potencies that are commonly used, for instance D12 and C30, and add them to bacterial cultures. To cover even part of the range of homeopathic remedies, several thousand such tests would be required. The remedies that show activity in vitro would then be candidates for further clinical tests.
I doubt that this will generate meaningful findings. As homeopaths would probably point out quickly, they never claimed that their remedies have any antibiotic effects. Homeopathics work not via pharmacological mechanisms (there is none), they stimulate the vital force, the immune system, or whatever mystical force you fancy. Faced with the inevitably negative results of in vitro tests, homeopaths would merely shrug their shoulders and say: ‘we told you so’.
Thus it might be more constructive to go directly into animal models. Such tests could take several shapes and forms. For instance, scientists could infect animals with a bacterium and subsequently treat one group with a high potency homeopathic remedy and the control group with a placebo. If the homeopathic animals survive, while the controls die, the homeopathic treatment was effective.
Such concepts would run into problems on at least two levels. Firstly, any ethics committee worth its name would refuse to pass such a protocol and argue that it is not ethical to infect and then treat animals with two different types of placebo. Secondly, the homeopathic fraternity would explain that homeopathy must be individualised which cannot be done properly in animals. Faced with the inevitably negative results of such animal studies, homeopaths would merely shrug their shoulders and say: ‘we told you so’.
Homeopathy may, according to some homeopaths, defy in vitro and animal tests, but it is most certainly amenable to being tested in clinical trials. The simplest version of a clinical study would entail randomising a group of patients with bacterial infections – say pneumonia – into receiving either individualised homeopathy or placebo. Possibly, one could add a third group of patients being treated with appropriate antibiotics.
The problem here would again be the ethics; no proper ethic committee would pass such a concept (see above). Another problem might be that even the homeopathic fraternity would oppose such a study. Why? Because all but the most deluded homeopaths know only too well that the result of such a trial would be devastatingly negative for homeopathy.
Therefore, homeopaths are likely to go for a different study design, for instance, one where patients suspected to have a bacterial infection are randomised to two groups of GPs. One group of ‘normal’ GPs would proceed as usual, while the other group are also trained in homeopathy and would be free to give whatever they feel is right for each individual patient. With a bit of luck, the ‘normal’ GPs would over-prescribe antibiotics (because that’s what they are apparently doing routinely), while the homeopathic GPs would often use homeopathics instead.
Such a study would indeed generate a result alleging that the use of homeopathy reduces the use of antibiotics. Of course, to be truly ‘positive’ it would need to exclude any clinical outcome such as time to recovery, because that might not be in favour of homeopathy.
The problem might again be the ethics committee. Assuming they are scientifically switched on, they will see through the futility of a trial designed to produce the desired result. They might also argue that science is not for testing one faulty approach (over-prescribing) against another (homeopathy) and insist that science is about finding the best treatment (which is neither of the two).
There are, of course, many other study designs that could be considered. Generally, they fall into two different categories: if they are rigorous tests of a hypothesis, they are sure to produce a result unfavourable to homeopathy. Such studies will therefore be opposed to by the powerful homeopathic fraternity. If, however, studies are flimsily designed to generate a positive finding, they might be liked by homeopaths, yet rejected by scientists and ethicists.
A much easier solution to the question ‘does the use of homeopathy reduce the use of antibiotics’ might be to not do a trial at all, but to run a simple survey. For instance, one could retrospectively assess how many antibiotics 100 homeopathic GPs have prescribed during the last year and compare this to the figure of 100 over-prescribing, ‘normal’ GPs. This type of ‘research’ is a sure winner for the homeopaths. Therefore, I predict that they will advocate this or a similarly flawed concept.
Most politicians are scientifically illiterate to such a degree that they might actually agree to finance such a survey and then confuse correlation with causation by triumphantly stating that the use of homeopathy reduces over-prescribing of antibiotics. Few, I fear, will realise that there is only one method for reducing the over-prescribing of antibiotics: remind doctors what they all learnt in medical school, namely to prescribe antibiotics only in cases where they are indicated. And for that we evidently need no homeopathy or other SCAM.
I almost forgot!
This would have been no good, after all, Charles has for decades been the most influential supporter of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) in the UK. He is one of SCAM’s greatest proponent.
So, here is my up-dated, extended and illustrated summary of his achievements in this area.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHARLES!
Charles went on a journey of ‘spiritual discovery’ into the wilderness of northern Kenya. His guru and guide at the time was Laurens van der Post (later discovered to be a fraud and compulsive fantasist and to have fathered a child with a 14-year old girl entrusted to him during a sea voyage).
Van der Post wanted to awake Charles’ mind and attune it to the vitalistic ideas of Carl Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’, and it is this belief in vitalism that provides the crucial link to alternative medicine: virtually every form of alternative therapies is based on the assumption that some sort of vital force exists. Charles was so taken by van der Post that he made him the godfather of Prince William. After Post’s death, he established an annual lecture in his honour (the lecture series was discontinued after Van der Post was discovered to be a fraud).
Some time in the 1970s, Charles met Jimmy Saville and befriended him. Apparently, Saville later advised Charles on several occasions in various health-related matters.
Throughout the 1980s, Charles lobbied for the statutory regulation of chiropractors and osteopaths in the UK. In 1993, this finally became reality. These two SCAM professions are to this day the only ones regulated by statute in the UK.
Osteopathy has strong Royal links: Prince Charles is the President of the GOsC; Princess Diana was the President of the GCRO; and Princess Anne is the patron of the British School of Osteopathy (statement dated 2011).
In 1982, Prince Charles was elected as President of the British Medical Association (BMA) and promptly challenged the medical orthodoxy by advocating alternative medicine. In a speech at his inaugural dinner as President, the Prince lectured the medics: ‘Through the centuries healing has been practised by folk healers who are guided by traditional wisdom which sees illness as a disorder of the whole person, involving not only the patient’s body, but his mind, his self-image, his dependence on the physical and social environment, as well as his relation to the cosmos.’ The BMA-officials ordered a full report on alternative medicine which promptly condemned this area as implausible nonsense.
Six years later, a second report, entitled Complementary Medicine – New Approaches to Good Practice, heralded an astonishing about-turn stating that: “the demand for non-conventional therapies had become so pressing that organised medicine in Britain could no longer ignore its contribution”. At the same time, however, the BMA set in motion a further chapter in the history of SCAM by insisting that it was “unacceptable” to allow the unrestricted practice of non-conventional therapies, irrespective of training or experience.
In 1993, Charles founded his lobby group which, after being re-named several times, ended up being called the ‘Foundation for Integrated Health’ (FIH). It was closed down in 2010 amidst allegations of money laundering and fraud. Its chief executive, George Gray, was later convicted and went to jail. The FIH had repeatedly been a little economical with the truth.
In 2000, Charles wrote an open letter to The Times stating that…It makes good sense to evaluate complementary and alternative therapies. For one thing, since an estimated £1.6 billion is spent each year on them, then we want value for our money. The very popularity of the non-conventional approaches suggests that people are either dissatisfied with their orthodox treatment, or they find genuine relief in such therapies. Whatever the case, if they are proved to work, they should be made more widely available on the NHS…But there remains the cry from the medical establishment of “where’s the proof?” — and clinical trials of the calibre that science demands cost money…The truth is that funding in the UK for research into complementary medicine is pitiful…So where can funding come from?…Figures from the department of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter show that less than 8p out of every £100 of NHS funds for medical research was spent on complementary medicine. In 1998-99 the Medical Research Council spent no money on it at all, and in 1999 only 0.05 per cent of the total research budget of UK medical charities went to this area…
In 2001, Charles worked on plans to help build a model hospital of integrated medicine. It was to train doctors to combine conventional medicine and alternative treatments, such as homeopathy, Ayurvedic medicine and acupuncture, and was to have up to 100 beds. The prince’s intervention marked the culmination of years of campaigning by him for the NHS to assign a greater role to alternative medicine. Teresa Hale, founder of the Hale Clinic in London, said: “Twenty-five years ago people said we were quacks. Now several branches, including homeopathy, acupuncture and osteopathy, have gained official recognition.” The proposed hospital, which was due to open in London in 2003/4, was to be overseen by Mosaraf Ali, who runs the Integrated Medical Centre (IMC) in London. But the hospital never materialised.
This might be due to Mosaraf Ali falling in disrepute: Raj Bathija, 69 and from India, went for a massage at the clinic of Dr Mosaraf Ali and his brother Imran in 2005 after suffering from two strokes. However, he claims that shortly after the treatment, his legs became pale and discoloured. Four days afterwards, Mr Bathija was admitted to hospital, where he had to have both legs amputated below the knee due to a shortage of blood. According to Mr Bathija, Dr Ali and his brother were negligent in that they failed to diagnose his condition and neglected to advise him to go to hospital. His daughter Shibani said: “My father was in a wheelchair but was making progress with his walking. He hoped he might become a bit more independent. With the amputations, that’s all gone.” Dr Ali was sued (if anyone knows the outcome of this case, please let me know).
At the age of 53, Mrs Parker Bowles went on a trek to the Himalayas to ‘re-energise’ her spirits and encourage her to give up smoking. She was in a party of 12 accompanied by the Prince of Wales’s favourite health guru, Dr Mosaraf Ali. Mrs Parker Bowles subsequently became a regular visitor to Dr Ali’s London practice where she has been encouraged to take up yoga both to combat her back pain and to help her give up smoking.
In the same year, Charles published an editorial in the BMJ promoting his ideas around integrative medicine. Its title: THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS.
In 2003, Prince Charles’ FIH launched a five-year plan which outlined how to improve access to alternative therapies.
In 2004, Charles publicly supported the Gerson diet as a treatment for cancer and Prof Baum, an eminent oncologist, was invited to respond in an open letter to the British Medical Journal: …Over the past 20 years I have treated thousands of patients with cancer and lost some dear friends and relatives to this dreaded disease…The power of my authority comes with knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research. Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. I don’t begrudge you that authority but I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life-threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies.
In 2005, the ‘Smallwood-Report’ was published; it had been commissioned by Charles and paid for by Dame Shirley Porter to inform health ministers. It stated that up to 480 million pounds could be saved, if one in 10 family doctors offered homeopathy as an “alternative” to standard drugs for asthma. Savings of up to 3.5 billion pounds could be achieved by offering spinal manipulation rather than drugs to people with back pain. Because I had commented on this report, Prince Charles’ first private secretary asked my vice chancellor to investigate my alleged indiscretion; even though I was found to be not guilty of any wrong-doing, all local support at Exeter stopped which eventually led to my early retirement. ITV later used this incident in a film entitled THE MEDDLING PRINCE, I later published a full account of this sad story in my memoir.
In a 2006 speech, Prince Charles told the World Health Organisation in Geneva that alternative medicine should have a more prominent place in health care and urged every country to come up with a plan to integrate conventional and alternative medicine into the mainstream. But British science struck back. Anticipating Prince Charles’s sermon in Geneva, 13 of Britain’s most eminent physicians and scientists wrote an “Open Letter” which expressed concern over “ways in which unproven or disproved treatments are being encouraged for general use in Britain’s National Health Service.” The signatories argued that “it would be highly irresponsible to embrace any medicine as though it were a matter of principle.”
In 2008, The Times published my letter asking the FIH to withdraw two guides promoting alternative medicine, stating: “the majority of alternative therapies appear to be clinically ineffective, and many are downright dangerous.” A speaker for the FIH countered the criticism by stating: “We entirely reject the accusation that our online publication Complementary Healthcare: A Guide contains any misleading or inaccurate claims about the benefits of complementary therapies. On the contrary, it treats people as adults and takes a responsible approach by encouraging people to look at reliable sources of information… so that they can make informed decisions. The foundation does not promote complementary therapies.”
In 2009, the Prince held talks with the health Secretary to persuade him to introduce safeguards amid a crackdown by the EU that could prevent anyone who is not a registered health practitioner from selling remedies. This, it seems, was yet another example of Charles’ disregard of his constitutional role.
In the same year, Charles urged the government to protect alternative medicine because “we fear that we will see a black market in herbal products”, as Dr Michael Dixon (LVO,2015; OBE 2001), then medical director of Charles’ FIH, put it.
In 2009, the health secretary wrote to the prince suggesting a meeting on the possibility of a study on integrating complementary and conventional healthcare approaches in England. The prince had written to Burnham’s predecessor, Alan Johnson, to demand greater access to complementary therapies in the NHS alongside conventional medicine. The prince told him that “despite waves of invective over the years from parts of the medical and scientific establishment” he continued to lobby “because I cannot bear people suffering unnecessarily when a complementary approach could make a real difference”. He opposed “large and threatened cuts” in the funding of homeopathic hospitals and their possible closure. He complained that referrals to the Royal London homeopathic hospital were increasing “until what seems to amount to a recent ‘anti-homeopathic campaign’”. He warned against cuts despite “the fact that these homeopathic hospitals deal with many patients with real health problems who otherwise would require treatment elsewhere, often at greater expense”.
In 2009, it was announced that the ‘College of Integrated Medicine’ (the name was only later changed to ‘College of Medicine’, see below) was to have a second base in India. An Indian spokesman commented: “The second campus of the Royal College will be in Bangalore. We have already proposed the setting up of an All India Institute of Integrated Medicine to the Union health ministry. At a meeting in London last week with Prince Charles, we finalized the project which will kick off in July 2010”.
In 2010, Charles publicly stated that he was proud to be perceived as ‘an enemy of the enlightenment’.
In 2010, ‘Republic’ filed an official complaint about FIH alleging that its trustees allowed the foundation’s staff to pursue a public “vendetta” against a prominent critic of the prince’s support for complementary medicines. It also suggested that the imminent closure of Ernst’s department may be partly down to the charity’s official complaint about him after he publicly attacked its draft guide to complementary medicines as “outrageous and deeply flawed”.
In 2010, former fellows of Charles’ disgraced FIH launched a new organisation, The College of Medicine’ supporting the use of integrated treatments in the NHS. One director of the college is Michael Dixon, a GP in Cullompton, formerly medical director of the Foundation for Integrated Health. My own analysis of the activities of the new college leaves little doubt that it is promoting quackery.
In 2011, after the launch of Charles’ range of herbal tinctures, I had the audacity to publicly criticise Charles for selling the Duchy Herbals detox tincture which I named ‘Dodgy Originals Detox Tincture’.
In 2011, Charles forged a link between ‘The College of Medicine’ and an Indian holistic health centre (see also above). The collaboration was reported to include clinical training to European and Western doctors in ayurveda and homoeopathy and traditional forms of medicine to integrate them in their practice. The foundation stone for the extended campus of the Royal College known as the International Institution for Holistic and Integrated Medicine was laid by Dr Michael Dixon in collaboration with the Royal College of Medicine.
In 2012, Charles was nominated for ‘THE GOLDEN DUCK AWARD’ for his achievements in promoting quackery. However, Andrew Wakefield beat him to it; Charles certainly was a deserving runner-up.
In 2013, Charles called for society to embrace a broader and more complex concept of health. In his article he described a vision of health that includes the physical and social environment, education, agriculture and architecture.
In 2013, Charles’ Highgrove enterprise offered ‘baby-hampers’ for sale at £195 a piece and made a range of medicinal claims for the products it contained. As these claims were not supported by evidence, there is no way to classify them other than quackery.
By 2013, the ‘Association of Osteomyologists’ were seeking to become regulated by statute, with the help of Prince Charles as their patron. The chairman and founder of this organisation was knighted for services to alternative medicine. Osteomyologists encourage the use of techniques including cranio-sacral therapy and claim that “we all know that Colleges, Institutions, and Medical Practitioners, are brain washed from the very outset into believing that their discipline is the only way to go.”
In November 2013, Charles invited alternative medicine proponents from across the world, including Dean Ornish, Michael Dixon, chair of College of Medicine, UK and Issac Mathai of Soukya Foundation, Bangalore, to India for a ‘brain storm’ and a subsequent conference on alternative medicine. The prince wanted the experts to collaborate and explore the possibilities of integrating different systems of medicines and to better the healthcare delivery globally, one of the organisers said.
In June 2014, BBC NEWS published the following text about a BBC4 broadcast entitled ‘THE ROYAL ACTIVIST’ aired on the same day: Prince Charles has been a well-known supporter of complementary medicine. According to a… former Labour cabinet minister, Peter Hain, it was a topic they shared an interest in. He had been constantly frustrated at his inability to persuade any health ministers anywhere that that was a good idea, and so he, as he once described it to me, found me unique from this point of view, in being somebody that actually agreed with him on this, and might want to deliver it. Mr Hain added: “When I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 2005-7, he was delighted when I told him that since I was running the place I could more or less do what I wanted to do.*** I was able to introduce a trial for complementary medicine on the NHS, and it had spectacularly good results, that people’s well-being and health was vastly improved. And when he learnt about this he was really enthusiastic and tried to persuade the Welsh government to do the same thing and the government in Whitehall to do the same thing for England, but not successfully,” added Mr Hain. On this blog, I have pointed out that the research in question was fatally flawed and that Charles, once again, overstepped the boundaries of his constitutional role.
In 2015, two books were published which are relevant in this context. My memoir A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND recounts most of my dealings with Charles and his sycophants, including how an intervention from his first private secretary eventually led to the closure of my department. The book by Catherine Meyer CHARLES, THE HEART OF A KING is far less critical about our heir to the throne; it nevertheless severely criticises his stance on alternative medicine.
In October 2015, the Guardian obtained the infamous “black spider memos” which revealed that Charles had repeatedly lobbied politicians in favour of alternative medicine (see also above).
In 2016, speaking at a global leaders summit on antimicrobial resistance, Prince Charles warned that Britain faced a “potentially disastrous scenario” because of the “overuse and abuse” of antibiotics. The Prince explained that he had switched to organic farming on his estates because of the growing threat from antibiotic resistance and now treats his cattle with homeopathic remedies rather than conventional medication. “As some of you may be aware, this issue has been a long-standing and acute concern to me,” he told delegates from 20 countries “I have enormous sympathy for those engaged in the vital task of ensuring that, as the world population continues to increase unsustainably and travel becomes easier, antibiotics retain their availability to overcome disease… It must be incredibly frustrating to witness the fact that antibiotics have too often simply acted as a substitute for basic hygiene, or as it would seem, a way of placating a patient who has a viral infection or who actually needs little more than patience to allow a minor bacterial infection to resolve itself.”
In 2017, the ‘College of Medicine’ mentioned above was discretely re-named ‘College of Medicine and Integrated Health’
In the same year, Charles declared that he will open a centre for alternative medicine in the recently purchased Dumfries House in Scotland. Currently, the College of Medicine and Integrated Health is offering two-day Foundation Courses at this iconic location. Gabriel Chiu, a US celebrity cosmetic and reconstructive surgeon, and his wife Christine, joined the Prince of Wales as he opened the integrated health and wellbeing centre on the Dumfries House Estate in East Ayrshire in 2019. As he unveiled a plaque at the event, Prince Charles said: “I’m so glad that all of you have been able to get here today, particularly because I could not be more proud to see the opening of this new integrated health centre at Dumfries House. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for the last 35 years. I’m also so proud of all the team at Dumfries House who built it, an all in-house team.
“To reach this point where we can now offer a range of social prescribing opportunities is enormously encouraging and I hope it will be able to make some difference to a lot of the health issues that exist in this area.”
Also in 2017, ‘Country News’ published an article about our heir to the throne stating that Prince of Wales has revealed he uses homeopathic treatments for animals on his organic farm at Highgrove to help reduce reliance on antibiotics, the article stated. He said his methods of farming tried wherever possible to ‘‘go with the grain of nature’’ to avoid dependency on antibiotics, pesticides and other forms of chemical intervention.
In 2018, The Prince of Wales accompanied the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, to the Science Museum in London, and praised Asian medicine practices. The heir to the throne and the Indian Prime Minister then jointly unveiled a plaque for the UK’s first centre of excellence for Indian traditional medicine.
In the same year, it was revealed that UK farmers are being taught how to treat their livestock with homeopathy “by kind permission of His Royal Highness, The Prince Of Wales”
In 2019, the Faculty of Homeopathy announced that His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales had accepted to become Patron of the Faculty of Homeopathy. Dr Gary Smyth, President of the Faculty of Homeopathy comments, “As the Faculty celebrates its 175th anniversary this year, it is an enormous honour for us to receive the Patronage of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales and I am delighted to announce this news today.” Charles’ move amazed observers who saw it as a deliberate protest against the discontinuation of reimbursement of homeopathy by the NHS.
In 2019, Prince Charles said that yoga had “proven beneficial effects on both body and mind,” and has “tremendous social benefits” that help build “discipline, self-reliance and self-care.”
So again, Happy Birthday Your Royal Highness – and please don’t forget: it’s not too late to start doing good in the realm of healthcare by supporting good science, critical thinking and evidence-based medicine.