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

fallacy

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So sorry, I have been neglecting THE ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME of late. I was reminded of its existence when writing my post about Adrian White the other day. Reading the kind comments I received on it, I not only decided to make Adrian an honorary member (for his latter part of his career as an acupuncture researcher, but also to reactivate the idea of the HALL OF FAME in more general terms. And in the course of doing just this, I noticed that I somehow forgot to admit Prof Michael Frass, an omission which I regret and herewith rectify. A warm welcome to both!

In case you are unaware what THE ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME is, let me explain: it is a group of researchers who manage to go through (part of) their professional life researching their particular SCAM without ever publishing a negative conclusion about it, or who have other outstanding merits in misleading the public about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). As of today, we thus have the following experts in the HALL:

Adrian White (acupuncturist, UK)

Michael Frass (homeopath, Austria)

Jens Behnke (research officer, Germany)

John Weeks (editor of JCAM, US)

Deepak Chopra (entrepreneur, Us)

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)

I must say, this is an assembly of international SCAM experts to be proud of – even if I say so myself!

The new member I am proposing to admit today is Dr Jenice Pellow. She is a lecturer in the Department of Complementary Medicine at the University of Johannisburg and already once featured on this blog. But now it seems time to admit this relatively little-known researcher into my HALL OF FAME. Dr Pellow has 11 Medline-listed papers on so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Allow me to show you some key findings from their abstracts:

  1. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) offers parents various treatment options for this condition [ADHD], including dietary modifications, nutritional supplementation, herbal medicine, and homeopathy. CAM appears to be most effective when prescribed holistically and according to each individual’s characteristic symptoms.
  2. The homeopathic medicine reduced the sensitivity reaction of cat allergic adults to cat allergen, according to the SPT. Future studies are warranted to further investigate the effect of Cat saliva and Histaminum and their role as a potential therapeutic option for this condition.
  3. Findings suggest that daily use of the homeopathic complex does have an effect over a 4-wk period on physiological and cognitive arousal at bedtime as well as on sleep onset latency in PI sufferers. Further research on the use of this complex for PI is warranted before any definitive conclusions can be drawn.
  4. The homeopathic complex used in this study exhibited significant anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving qualities in children with acute viral tonsillitis. No patients reported any adverse effects. These preliminary findings are promising; however, the sample size was small and therefore a definitive conclusion cannot be reached. A larger, more inclusive research study should be undertaken to verify the findings of this study.
  5. results suggest the homeopathic complex, together with physiotherapy, can significantly improve symptoms associated with CLBP due to OA.
  6. This small study showed the potential benefits of individualized homeopathic treatment of binge eating in males, decreasing both the frequency and severity of binging episodes. 
  7. There have been numerous trials and pharmacological studies of specific herbal preparations related to the treatment of low sexual desire.
  8. Most of the evaluated medicinal plants showed evidence of efficacy in relieving menstrual pain in at least one RCT.
  9. Results indicated that most participants made use of both complementary and conventional medicines for their infant’s colic; the most commonly used complementary medicine products were homeopathic remedies, probiotics and herbal medicines.
  10. Promising evidence for the following single supplements were found [for allergic rhinitis]: apple polyphenols, tomato extract, spirulina, chlorophyll c2, honey, conjugated linoleic acid, MSM, isoquercitrin, vitamins C, D and E, as well as probiotics. Combination formulas may also be beneficial, particularly specific probiotic complexes, a mixture of vitamin D3, quercetin and Perilla frutescens, as well as the combination of vitamin D3 and L. reuteri. 
  11. Despite a reported lack of knowledge regarding complementary medicine and limited personal use, participants had an overall positive attitude towards complementary medicine. 

I admit that 11 papers in 7 years is not an overwhelming output for a University lecturer. However, please do consider the fact that all of them – particularly the ones on homeopathy which is be the particular focus of Jenice (after all, she is a homeopath) – chime a happy tune for SCAM. I therefore think that Jenice should be admitted to THE ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME and hope you agree.

Welcome to  ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME, Jenice!

As though the UK does not have plenty of organisations promoting so-called alternative medicine (SCAM)! Obviously not – because a new one is about to emerge.

In mid-January, THE COLLEGE OF MEDICINE AND INTEGRATED HEALTH (COMIH) will launch the Integrated Medicine Alliance bringing together the leaders of many complementary health organisations to provide patients, clinicians and policy makers with information on the various complementary modalities, which will be needed in a post COVID-19 world, where:

  1. patient choice is better respected,
  2. requirements for evidence of efficacy are more proportionate to the seriousness of the disease and the safety of the intervention,
  3. and where benefit versus risk are better balanced.

We already saw this in 2020 with the College advocating from the very beginning of the year that people should think about taking Vitamin D, while the National Institute for Clinical Excellence continued to say the evidence was insufficient, but the Secretary of State has now supported it being given to the vulnerable on the basis of the balance between cost, benefit and safety.

Elsewhere we learn more about the Integrated Medicine Alliance (IMA):

The IMA is a group of organisations and individuals that have been brought together for the purpose of encouraging and optimising the best use of complementary therapies alongside conventional healthcare for the benefit of all.

The idea for this group was conceived by Dr Michael Dixon in discussion with colleagues associated with the College of Medicine, and the initial meeting to convene the group was held in February 2019.

The group transitioned through a number of titles before settling on the ‘Integrated Medicine Alliance’ and began work on developing a patient leaflet and a series of information sheets on the key complementary therapies.

It was agreed that in the first instance the IMA should exist under the wing of the College of Medicine, but that in the future it may develop into a formal organisation in its own right, but inevitably maintaining a close relationship with the College of Medicine.

The IMA also offers ‘INFORMATION SHEETS’ on the following modalities:

I find those leaflets revealing. They tell us, for example that the Reiki practitioner channels universal energy through their hands to help rebalance each of the body’s energy centres, known as chakras. About homeopathy, we learn that a large corpus of evidence has accumulated which stands the most robust tests of modern science. And about naturopathy, we learn that it includes ozone therapy but is perfectly safe.

Just for the fun of it – and free of charge – let me try to place a few corrections here:

  • Reiki healers use their hands to perform what is little more than a party trick.
  • The universal energy they claim to direct does not exist.
  • The body does not have energy centres.
  • Chakras are a figment of imagination.
  • The corpus of evidence on homeopathy is by no means large.
  • The evidence is flimsy.
  • The most robust tests of modern science fail to show that homeopathy is effective beyond placebo.
  • Naturopathy is a hotchpotch of treatments most of which are neither natural nor perfectly safe.

One does wonder who writes such drivel for the COMIH, and one shudders to think what else the IMA might be up to.

I often hear that my ambitions to inform the public and inspire critical thinking are hopeless: there are simply too many quacks trumpeting nonsense, and their collective influence is surely bigger than mine. This can be depressing, of course. And because I often feel that I am fighting an unwinnable battle, stories like this are so importand and up-lifting.

Denby Royal was a ‘holistic nutritionist’, then she became a critic of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Here is the story about her transformation:

… I had gone to holistic nutrition school. I was running my own nutrition consulting business. And suddenly I didn’t believe in any of it anymore. How did this flip flop come to pass?

… As a holistic nutritionist, I was an active participant in what I now consider alternative medicine tomfoolery, specifically pushing supplements on a clientele of the “worried well” who often mistook wellness enthusiasts like me for medical experts. I want to be clear that I wasn’t knowingly deceiving anyone—I really did believe in the solutions I was offering my clients… To holistic nutrition enthusiasts and people who believe in a certain kind of alt wellness, these “natural” and “holistic” products seem more trustworthy than what mainstream medicine offers. The truth is, they often lack sufficient, peer-reviewed, reliable scientific evidence of their supposed effectiveness.

Did I have rock-solid evidence that these products would do what their labels promised they would do? Not really. Sure, I read studies here and there that found specific health benefits for some of the products. But I rarely mentioned the fine print (if I knew it at all)—that the sample sizes of many of these studies often were so small that the results couldn’t be generalized to a larger population, that the studies’ authors sometimes noted that more research was needed to support any findings on the effects they found, or that systematic reviews later found that many studies were poorly constructed or at risk for bias, making their findings even less compelling than they seemed initially. And in some cases, study authors themselves note that their findings are merely jumping off points, and that more long-term studies are needed in order to draw more solid conclusions…

Was I relying on strong, valid evidence? Nah, not really. But at the time, I thought what I had was better than strong evidence: Faith in a lifestyle and a dogmatic belief that all things traditional and mainstream were unhealthy or harmful, and therefore, that all things unconventional and alternative were curative and would bring about “wellness.”

In an effort to expand my product knowledge I researched a lot of the different supplements available. I was using all the best bias-confirming websites where other homeopathic medicine enthusiasts evangelized their favorite remedies, their enthusiasm and insistence, and anecdotal evidence standing in for what typically shows us that a product is safe and effective—clinical trials and FDA approval.

When their arguments and reasoning started to sink in, I realized that my faith in the healing powers of supplements may have been overzealous at best, unfounded at worst. My world crumbled like a piece of raw gluten-free paleo cheesecake. It started to sink in: Where there was a morsel of convincing medical information blended with enough compelling nonsense and communicated with enough conviction, I believed it, hook, line, and sinker.

When I started to notice the holes in the fabric of holistic nutrition, the fabric looked, well, pretty threadbare. I subsequently disconnected from social media and distanced myself from the entire culture. I took a good look at how I was personally and publicly communicating my relationships with food and wellness. After spending my twenties experimenting with all kinds of specialty diets, I was left feeling exhausted, anxious, underweight, overweight, and fed-up.

And so that last domino fell when I took away the thing that was propping it up for me: social media. Instagram is a playground for wellness influencers, including, at the time, me. My Instagram account was the best way to advertise my nutrition consulting business, so maintaining a certain persona there felt completely crucial to my success, and eventually, my identity. It was a world full of beautifully curated accounts of thin yogis gathering wild herbs in nature or making raw desserts with ingredients that cost more than my entire monthly food budget. I started to feel like the alternative wellness community I was part of—myself included—was an echo chamber, where we stockpiled likes and positive comments to build a wall that would keep out ideas that challenged our status quo. In fact, the more reassurance I received from my online community, the harder I believed in our gospel.

As I was disentangling my beliefs from everything I was learning by looking at the actual evidence, I realized that my education to become a holistic nutritionist hadn’t prepared me to understand health and wellness as completely and comprehensively as I’d once thought. Sure, I’d spent a some time studying the pathology of disease, and a little longer learning about how each bodily system works to get your human suit from point A to point B, but I am only slightly closer to being a medical professional than I am to becoming a professional cricket player. First of all, in total, my entire formal education as a holistic nutritionist was 10 months long. Second of all, that education was intended to complement—not replace—traditional medical treatment. But as soon as I finished the program, I could immediately start taking on clients. And lots of potential clients out there are just like the way I used to be—wishing they looked or felt different and in search of the panacea, willing (if not eager) to defer to an expert.

There may have been many people willing to look to me as an expert, but here’s the thing: in my school, there were no residency or clinical hours required to prepare us for the real world or to take on clients—unlike dietitians here in Canada, who must obtain a bachelor’s degree in Nutritional and Food Sciences, qualify to complete a rigorous post-degree internship program and register with a provincial dietetics organization, or get a master’s degree. We received a certificate, and that was that. It was a credential that wholeheartedly fell short of resembling anything close to making me an authority on the subject of health as it relates to food and diet. But most people in the general public can’t be expected to understand the ins and outs of how experts are credentialed and licensed—many of us assume that someone calling themselves something that we associate with authority is, in fact, an authority we can trust.

The brief education that I received to become a holistic nutritionist did provide me with valuable stepping stones and a general understanding of how the body works. My program discouraged students from saying “treat,” “heal,” “prevent,” or “cure.” Generally speaking holistic nutrition programs don’t provide the training and medical education that registered dietitians receive, which enables them to give sound, ethical medical nutrition advice, nor are they required by law, the way dietitian programs are, to provide it. In fact, in 2015 graduates of the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition were barred from identifying as Registered Holistic Nutritionists, and since then must use the title “Holistic Nutritional Consultant.”

… With what I do have from my classroom education, I can analyze a lifestyle that needs some fine-tuning and provide guidance on how to structure a solid meal plan. That’s about it. After years of self-diagnosis and hashtagging all my fad-diet escapades (for this, I greatly apologize to all those I have alienated with my profuse self-righteousness), I can at least say I have a deep appreciation for those who are actually on the front lines in the fight against unproven medical remedies and the potential damage it may do to those who use it to the exclusion of traditional medicine.

The influence of these remedies is not harmless, and I have seen firsthand in many different examples and situations how it can lure people away from real, evidence-based help in their times of need. I am fortunate enough that within my practice I had enough foresight to turn away individuals who required more guidance than I was capable of giving. But along the way I made many embarrassing and conjectural recommendations. Like I said, I was far from knowingly deceiving anyone. I firmly held the belief that alternative medicine, no matter the cost, was an investment in a healthful future. My own medicine cabinet, an arsenal full of supplements, tincture, and powders, was a personal testament to how deeply I was devoted to holistic nutrition.

This essay is a firm farewell from a world I disconnected from long ago. The person that over years I let myself become through naiveté, not doing my own research, and a misguided desire to be different. So here I am now, officially having left the church of woo, bidding the world of alternative health adieu.

_________________________________

Reading Denby’s account, I was reminded of many themes we have previously discussed on this blog. One issue that perhaps needs more focus is this notion:

I was far from knowingly deceiving anyone.”

I have not yet met a SCAM practitioner who says:

“I am in the business of  deceiving my patients.”

The reasons for this are simple:

  1. if they knowingly deceive, they would not tell us,
  2. and if they don’t know that they are deciving their patients, they cannot possibly admit to it.

The way Denby repeatedly assures us that she was far from knowingly deceiving anyone sounds charmingly naive and is, in my experience, very typical for SCAM practitioners. It depicts them as honorable people. Yet, in actual fact, it is neither charming nor honorable. It merely demonstrates the fact that they were perhaps not ruthlessly dishonest but all the more dangerous.

Let me explain this with a deliberately extreme example:

  • A man with a chronic condition – say type 2 diabetes – consults a SCAM practitioner who is knowingly deceiving him claiming that her SCAM effectively treats his condition. The patient follows the advice but, since he is not totally convinced (deception is rarely perfect), consults his doctor who puts him straight. This patient will therefore survive.
  • The same chap consults a SCAM practitioner who is deeply convinced of the effectiveness of her SCAM and thus not knowingly deceiving her patient when she claims that it is effective for his diabetes. Her conviction is so strong that the patient blindly believes her. Thus he stops his conventional medication and hopes for the best. This patient could easily die.

In a nutshell:

‘Honest’ conviction might render a quack more socially acceptable but also more dangerous to her patients.

 

There are of course 2 types of osteopaths: the US osteopaths who are very close to real doctors, and the osteopaths from all other countries who are practitioners of so-called alternative medicine. This post, as all my posts on this subject, is about the latter category.

I was alerted to a paper entitled ‘Osteopathy under scrutiny’. It goes without saying that I thought it relevant; after all, scrutinising so-called altermative medicine (SCAM), such as osteopathy is one of the aims of this blog. The article itself is in German, but it has an English abstract:

Osteopathic medicine is a medical specialty that enjoys a high level of recognition and increasing popularity among patients. High-quality education and training are essential to ensure good and safe patient treatment. At a superficial glance, osteopathy could be misunderstood as a myth; accurately considered, osteopathic medicine is grounded in medical and scientific knowledge and solid theoretical and practical training. Scientific advances increasingly confirm the empirical experience of osteopathy. Although more studies on its efficacy could be conducted, there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable application of osteopathy. Current scientific studies show how a manually executed osteopathic intervention can induce tissue and even cellular reactions. Because the body actively responds to environmental stimuli, osteopathic treatment is considered an active therapy. Osteopathic treatment is individually applied and patients are seen as an integrated entity. Because of its typical systemic view and scientific interpretation, osteopathic medicine is excellently suited for interdisciplinary cooperation. Further work on external evidence of osteopathy is being conducted, but there is enough knowledge from the other pillars of evidence-based medicine (EBM) to support the application of osteopathic treatment. Implementing careful, manual osteopathic examination and treatment has the potential to cut healthcare costs. To ensure quality, osteopathic societies should be intimately involved and integrated in the regulation of the education, training, and practice of osteopathic medicine.

This does not sound as though the authors know what scutiny is. In fact, the abstract reads like a white-wash of quackery. Why might this be so? To answer this question, we need to look no further than to the ‘conflicts of interest’ where the authors state (my translation): K. Dräger and R. Heller state that, in addition to their activities as further education officers/lecturers for osteopathy (Deutsche Ärztegesellschaft für Osteopathie e. V. (DÄGO) and the German Society for Osteopathic Medicine e. V. (DGOM)) there are no conflicts of interest.

But, to tell you the truth, the article itself is worse, much worse that the abstract. Allow me to show you a few quotes (all my [sometimes free] translations).

  • Osteopathic medicine is a therapeutic method based on the scientific findings from medical research.
  • [The osteopath makes] diagnostic and therapeutic movements with the hands for evaluating limitations of movement. Thereby, a blocked joint as well as a reduced hydrodynamic or vessel perfusion can be identified.
  • The indications of osteopathy are comparable to those of general medicine. Osteopathy can be employed from the birth of a baby up to the palliative care of a dying patient.
  • Biostatisticians have recognised the weaknesses of RCTs and meta-analyses, as they merely compare mean values of therapeutic effects, and experts advocate a further evidence level in which statictical correlation is abandonnened in favour of individual causality and definition of cause.
  • In ostopathy, the weight of our clinical experience is more important that external evidence.
  • Research of osteopathic medicine … the classic cause/effect evaluation cannot apply (in support of this statement, the authors cite a ‘letter to the editor‘ from 1904; I looked it up and found that it does in no way substantiate this claim)
  • Findings from anatomy, embryology, physiology, biochemistry and biomechanics which, as natural sciences, have an inherent evidence, strengthen in many ways the plausibility of osteopathy.
  • Even if the statistical proof of the effectiveness of neurocranial techniques has so far been delivered only in part, basic research demonstrates that the effects of traction or compression of bogily tissue causes cellular reactions and regulatory processes.

What to make of such statements? And what to think of the fact that nowhere in the entire paper even a hint of ‘scrutiny’ can be detected? I don’t know about you, but for me this paper reflects very badly on both the authors and on osteopathy as a whole. If you ask me, it is an odd mixture of cherry-picking the evidence, misunderstanding science, wishful thinking and pure, unadulterated bullshit.

You urgently need to book into a course of critical thinking, guys!

We are all prone to fall victim to the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy. It describes the erroneous assumption that something that happened after an event was cased by that event. The fallacy is essentially due to confusing correlation with causation:

  • the sun does not rise because the rooster has crowed;
  • yellow colouring of the 2nd and 3rd finger of a smoker is not the cause of lung cancer;
  • some children developing autism after vaccinations does not mean that autism is caused by vaccination.

As I said, we are all prone to this sort of thing, even though we know better. Scientists, journal editors and reviewers of medical papers, however, should not allow themselves to be fooled by overt cases of the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy. And if they do, they have lost all credibility – just like the individuals involved in a recent paper on animal homeopathy.

Pododermatitis in penguins usually occurs after changes in normal activity that result from being held captive. It is also called ‘bumlefoot’ (which fails to reflect the seriousness of the condition) and amounts to one of most frequent and important clinical complications in penguins kept in captivity or in rehabilitation centres.

This veterinary case study reports the use of oral homeopathic treatment on acute and chronic pododermatitis in five Magellanic penguins in a zoological park setting. During treatment, the patients remained in the penguins’ living area, and the effect of the treatment on the progression of their lesions was assessed visually once weekly. The treatment consisted of a combination of Arnica montana and Calcarea carbonica.

After treatment, the appearance of the lesions had noticeably improved: in the majority of penguins there was no longer evidence of infection or edema in the feet. The rate of recovery depended on the initial severity of the lesion. Those penguins that still showed signs of infection nevertheless exhibited a clear diminution of the size and thickness of the lesions. Homeopathic treatment did not cause any side effects.

The authors concluded that homeopathy offers a useful treatment option for pododermatitis in captive penguins, with easy administration and without side effects.

So, the homeopathic treatment happened before the recovery and, according to the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy, the recovery must have been caused by the therapy!

I know, this is a tempting conclusion for a lay person, but it is also an unjustified one, and the people responsible for this paper are not lay people. Pododermitis does often disappear by itself, particularly if the hygenic conditions under which the penguins had been kept are improved. In any case, it is a potentially life-threatening condition (a bit like an infected bed sore in an immobilised human patient) that can be treated, and one should certainly not let a homeopath deal with it.

I think that the researchers who wrote the article, the journal editor who accepted it for publication, and the referees who reviewed the paper should all bow their heads in shame and go on a basic science course (perhaps a course in medical ethics as well) before they are let anywhere near research again.

Prof. Shailendra Ramchandra Vishampayan is the 1st author of the paper we discussed yesterday. He was kind enough to repeatedly join us in the comments section, and I was therefore keen to learn more about him. On his website, he says about himself that he is a renowned academician and famous homeopath, enriched with decades of ideal experiences and quality services. He is registered medical practitioner (M.D), performs all the duties of registered medical practitioner following the law of land in India. Globally he is considered as homeopath and known as “Dr.V”. He is a registered member of Society of Homeopaths (overseas).

Dr. V, is a practicing homeopath with clinical experience of over 20 years. In course of his years of practice he had successfully helped more than 250 happy families globally, with various kinds of cases like thyroid, immune compromised, epilepsy, endocrine disorders, paediatric, gynaecological disorders addictions, psychiatric disorder, children with special needs, pets and plants.

He is famous for his path breaking concept and novel idea of creating an organization called ‘Folk Homeopathy ‘, which is dedicated to professional enrichment of homeopathic practitioners helping them to improve their clinical acumen with spot on prescription.

His practical approach in solving cases has earned him accolades and fame throughout the globe.

Dr. V is the author of ‘Kinder Garten Materia Medica’ a reference book for beginners widely used by homeopathic students in India. It is a book with unique combination of pictorial and pneumonic.

He is a Professor (PG) at D.Y.Patil Homeopathy Medical College (Pune). He has a teaching experience of over 16 years in teaching UG and PG. He has drawn large number of followers through webinars which is accessible throughout the globe. He has given more than 50 international seminar ,workshops and webinars in countries like USA, Ireland, Malaysia, with presentations on Homeopathic approach to female hormonal imbalance cases at OMICS Conference of Alternative Medicine, presentation on Psychiatric cases at Asian Homeopathic League. And various presentation at University of Cyberjaya, Malaysia, California Homeopathic Medical society, San Diego and also at Corte Madera, 98th FOH Congress, Liverpool and Kinvara Co Galway, Ireland.

And on the same site, we also learn that ‘Dr V’ is particularly adept at treating diabetes:

India is now considered as the diabetes capital of the world. Approximately 8.7 percent of Indians between the age of 20 to 70 years are diabetic. This translates to approximately 62.5 million diabetics living in India, according to estimates by the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) The economic burden of managing this disease is also substantial since this is a combination of cost of treatment and loss of productivity in such a high number of diabetics. Diabetes can affect multiple organ systems resulting in a wide range of serious issues in patients. Many of these complications in a diabetic do not have any specific treatment with conventional medicines. However, an indication of the popularity of homeopathy amongst diabetics is that the doctors at our clinic treat approximately two hundred cases of diabetes or diabetes related issues every day. We have, in fact, developed specific diabetes management protocols for patients based on the experience of thousands of cases we have seen over four decades.

This is interesting, I thought, and conducted a few Medline searches to see whether there is any evidence to show that homeopathy is an effective therapy for diabetes. I am afraid, I found no papers of ‘Dr V’ to suggest such an effect. But what I did find was certainly fascinating.

Last year, Italian diabetologists published an review entitled ‘Alternative treatment or alternative to treatment? A systematic review of randomized trials on homeopathic preparations for diabetes and obesity‘. Here is what they reported:

The searches failed to retrieve any trial comparing homeopathic remedies with placebo or any active drug for the treatment of either diabetes or obesity.

These authors commented that

… if homeopathy is used as an alternative to available and effective treatments, the consequences can be catastrophic, particularly in some conditions such as insulin-requiring diabetes. In conclusion, there is no scientific evidence on efficacy and no demonstration of safety of homeopathy in diabetes and obesity…

I agree with my Italian colleagues and I have previously expressed this view bluntly; I even entitled one of my posts ‘This is how homeopathy could kill millions‘.

‘Dr V’ will probably point out that he is a fully qualified doctor and uses homeopathy merely as an adjunct to conventional anti-diabetic treatments; thus he kills nobody.

I certainly hope this is so! But, even in this case, I must still ask: WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE THAT HOMEOPATHY IS AN EFFECTIVE ADJUNCT TO CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE?

Recently, I have received this message via the comments section of my blog:

“you’re actually an evil old nut-job Ed—been following your pharma ‘science’ bullshit for years—all opinion and ignorance and anti-science”

Don’t get me wrong, such attacks do not bother me – not any more. On the contrary, they amuse me. At one stage, I even started collecting them. Nowadays, I usually ignore them.

But this one is somewhat special. Therefore, I decided to analyse it a bit. The author essentially makes 9 claims:

  1. I am evil.
  2. I am old.
  3. I am a nut-job.
  4. I am called Ed.
  5. I conduct pharma science.
  6. I publish bullshit.
  7. All I state is opinion.
  8. I am ignorant.
  9. I am anti-science.

Yes, that’s quite a list. Let me try to tackle it one by one.

  1. Am I evil? I have had many ad hominem attacks before but, as far as I remember, nobody has yet alleged that I am evil. I looked it up, evil means: wicked · bad · wrong · morally wrong · wrongful · immoral · sinful · ungodly · unholy · foul · vile · base · ignoble · dishonorable · corrupt · iniquitous · depraved · degenerate · villainous · nefarious · sinister · vicious · malicious · malevolent · demonic · devilish · diabolic · diabolical · fiendish · dark · black-hearted · monstrous · shocking · despicable · atrocious · heinous · odious · contemptible · horrible · execrable · lowdown · stinking · dirty · shady · warped · bent · crooked · dastardly · black · egregious · flagitious · peccable. I am obviously the wrong person to judge, but I do not think that these attributes describe me all that well.
  2. Yes, I am old, 72 to be precise.
  3. Am I a nut-job? I looked that one up too. It’s a mentally unbalanced person. Call me biased, but I don’t think that this applies to me at all.
  4. No, I am not called Ed.
  5. I am not quite sure what ‘pharma science’ is supposed to mean, but one thing I do know for sure: since I research so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) – and that’s about 30 years now – I have not taken research funds from the pharmaceutical industry. And before I very rarely did.
  6. As I have published a sizable amount of papers and blog-posts, there must have been a bit of BS in some of it. But I do not think it can be much.
  7. All I state is opinion? Oh really! Opinion comes into blog-posts regularly; without it my stuff would be boring like hell. But ALL of it? I don’t think so.
  8. Am I ignorant? Yes, certainly; there are lots of things I don’t know, even in medicine. But in SCAM I do know quite a bit – even if I say so myself.
  9. Anti-science? That last allegation is probably the most far-fetched of them all. No, I am not anti-science, never have been and never will be.

So, Paul – the author of the comment preferred to remain anonymous and simply calls himself Paul – I have tried to give you credit where I could but, on the whole, I fear your ad hominem attack is yet another victory of reason over unreason. I thank you Paul for two reasons:

  • firstly for the just-mentioned victory; it always feels good to be on a winning side,
  • secondly for the stimulus and motivation to carry on doing what I have been doing for many years; your comment has shown me how much needed my work is in disclosing quackery, correcting errors, teaching critical thinking and responsibly informing the public.

THANKS PAUL

We probably all think we know what is meant by ‘pseudo-science’. But, in fact, the more you think about it, the less certain you are likely to become. Many very smart people have tried shed some light on this question and, in the end, had to admit that it is far from clear.

In his book ‘Decision Making and Rationality in the Modern World‘, Keith Stanovich makes a fresh attempt to tackle the problem. Here is a list of criteria that he deems important:

• The use of psychobabble – words that sound scientific, but are used incorrectly, or in a misleading manner. For example, “energy therapies” for psychological problems are often premised on biofeedback, meridian lines, quantum energies, and a host of other concepts that may sound impressive, but lack evidence.

• A substantial reliance on anecdotal evidence. Evidence for pseudoscience is typically anecdotal and consequently difficult to verify. For a class example, instructors may want to show students the Q-Ray bracelet website 1 and read the many quotes submitted by Q-Ray users. Although the quotes sound compelling, there is no scientific evidence to support any claims attached to them. In fact, the Q-Ray company lost a lawsuit in 2011 and was ordered to refund over $11 million dollars to people who purchased a Q-Ray bracelet.

• Extraordinary claims in the absence of extraordinary evidence (Truzzi, 1978Sagan, 1995). In pseudosciences, assertions are often highly implausible in light of existing knowledge yet are not backed by convincing evidence. For a class example, instructors may wish to describe how infomercials promoting Q-Ray bracelets state that the “bracelet rips [pain] right out of the body 2.” and are “designed to optimize your natural positive energy 1.”

• Unfalsifiable claims – Most pseudoscientific claims are incapable of being refuted in principle. For example, proponents of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) believe the human body has an invisible energy force called Qi (Zollman and Vickers, 1999). Qi is a crucial component of TCM, even though it cannot be measured or tested scientifically.

• An absence of connectivity to other research (Stanovich, 2010). Connectivity refers to the extent to which assertions build on extant knowledge. For example, homeopathic practitioners state that homeopathic treatments become stronger as they become more dilute, and that water has memory. Both of these claims run counter to established scientific knowledge (Singh and Ernst, 2008).

• Absence of adequate peer review. Peer review is far from perfect, but it is a key safeguard against error. Instructors may wish to encourage students to contrast the claims advanced by the authors of peer-reviewed versus non-peer-reviewed articles.

• Lack of self-correction. Pseudosciences frequently persist despite refutation. Often, proponents of pseudoscience will use the idea that since the treatment or idea has been used for thousands of years it must be correct (e.g., astrology), an error often called the ad antiquetem fallacy (or, argument from antiquity).

Yes, I know, nothing fundamentally new here. Nonetheless, I thought the list was thought-provoking, particularly as it harps back to themes which we have discussed regularly on this blog. Stanovich’s list is certainly not comprehensive. Feel free, if you think you can add new aspects to the features that characterise pseudoscience.

One of the many issues that needs addressing about chiropractic is its safety. On this blog, we have had dozens of posts and debates on this topic. Today, I want to try and summarise them by providing a fictitious dialogue between a critic and a chiropractor.

Here we go:

Critic (CR): It seems to me that most of the chiros I talk to are convinced that their hallmark therapy, spinal manipulation, is risk-free.

Chiro (CH): Hallmark therapy? Not true! Osteopaths, physios, doctors they all use spinal manipulation.

CR: I know, but name me a profession that employs it more regularly than you chiros.

CH: In any case, it is as good as risk-free; nothing is totally devoid of risk, but chiropractic spinal manipulation (CSMT) is generally very safe, because we are better trained at it than the others.

CR: Do you say that because you believe it or because you know it?

CH: I know it.

CR: That means you have the evidence to prove it?

CH: Yes, of course. Over the years, I have treated over a thousand patients and never heard of any problems.

CR: Without a monitoring system of adverse events that occur after chiropractic spinal manipulation, this is pretty meaningless.

CH: Monitoring systems do not establish causality.

CR: No, but they are a start and can tell you whether there is a problem that requires looking into.

CH: Let me remind you please that the question of safety is foremost an issue for conventional medicine; this is why a monitoring system is useful for drugs. We actually do not need one, because CSMT is safe.

CR: Are you sure?

CH: Yes, V DabbsW J Lauretti have shown this very clearly in their seminal paper comparing drug treatments with chiropractic. 

CR: The much-cited paper by Dabbs and Lauretti is out-dated, poor quality, and heavily biased. It provides no sound basis for an evidence-based judgement on the relative risks of cervical manipulation and NSAIDs. The notion that cervical manipulations are safer than NSAIDs is therefore not based on reliable data. Thus, it is misleading and irresponsible to repeat this claim. Is there not a better comparison for supporting your point?

CH: Not as far as I know. But you can trust our collective experience: CSMT is safe!

CR: Don’t you think that the issue is too important to rely purely on experience? Your collective experience can be very misleading, you know.

CH: Then tell me why chiros pay only a fraction of the insurance premium compared to doctors.

CR: Yes, that is the argument many chiros love. But it also is a very poor one: doctors treat patients who are often very ill, while chiros treat mostly sore backs. Don’t you think that explains a lot about the difference in insurance premiums?

CH: Perhaps, but if you claim CSMT to be harmful, how about you supporting your claim with evidence?

CR: Sure, the best is to review systematically all prospective studies on the topic; and if you do this, the conclusion is that data from prospective studies suggest that minor, transient adverse events occur in approximately half of all patients receiving spinal manipulation. The most common serious adverse events are vertebrobasilar accidents, disk herniation, and cauda equina syndrome. Estimates of the incidence of serious complications range from 1 per 2 million manipulations to 1 per 400,000. Given the popularity of spinal manipulation, its safety requires rigorous investigation.

CH: I bet these are studies done by people who are against chiropractic.

CR: No, actually the primary studies were all done by chiropractors.

CH: Minor transient problems! These are merely what we expect; things often need to get worse before they get better.

CR: Imagine that a drug company claims such BS about the side-effects of a new drug.

CH: But that’s different!

CR: In what way?

CH: Big Pharma is only out to make money.

CR: And chiros?

CH: That’s different too.

CR: What about the serious adverse events like vertebrobasilar accidents, disk herniation, and cauda equina syndrome? Are you going to deny they exist?

CH: Some of those serious complications, while rare, are conditions that existed prior to CSMT being performed with the practitioner missing it upon initial examination.

CR: How do you know?

CH: I know this from experience.

CR: I already told you that experience is unreliable.

CH: Then show me the evidence that I am wrong.

CR: No, you have to come up with the evidence; the burden of proof is evidently on your shoulders.

CH: Whatever! As long as there is no good evidence, I cannot accept that serious complications are a real problem.

CR: That’s just fine: you say “as long as there is no good evidence…” and, at the same time, you prevent good evidence from emerging by preventing a decent AE monitoring system.

CH: I always knew that one cannot have a reasonable discussion with you. I consider that I have won this debate; this issue is now closed.

 

On this blog, I have discussed the adverse events (AEs) of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) with some regularity, and we have seen that ~ 50% of patients who receive SMT from a chiropractor experience some kind of AE. In addition there are many serious complications. In my book, I discuss, apart from the better-known vascular accidents followed by a stroke or death, the following:

  • atlantoaxial dislocation,
  • cauda equina syndrome,
  • cervical radiculopathy,
  • diaphragmatic paralysis,
  • disrupted fracture healing,
  • dural sleeve injury,
  • haematoma,
  • haematothorax,
  • haemorrhagic cysts,
  • muscle abscess,
  • muscle abscess,
  • myelopathy,
  • neurologic compromise,
  • oesophageal rupture
  • pneumothorax,
  • pseudoaneurysm,
  • soft tissue trauma,
  • spinal cord injury,
  • vertebral disc herniation,
  • vertebral fracture,
  • central retinal artery occlusion,
  • nystagmus,
  • Wallenberg syndrome,
  • ptosis,
  • loss of vision,
  • ophthalmoplegia,
  • diplopia,
  • Horner’s syndrome.

Considering this long list, we currently have far too little reliable information. A recent publication offers further information on this important topic.

The aim of this study was to identify beliefs, perceptions and practices of chiropractors and patients regarding benign AEs post-SMT and potential strategies to mitigate them. Clinicians and patients from two chiropractic teaching clinics were invited to respond to an 11-question survey exploring their beliefs, perceptions and practices regarding benign AEs post-SMT and strategies to mitigate them.

A total of 39 clinicians (67% response rate) and 203 patients (82.9% response rate) completed the survey. The results show that:

  • 97% of the chiropractors believed benign AEs occur.
  • 82% reported their own patients have experienced an AE.
  • 55% of the patients reported experiencing benign AEs post-SMT, with the most common symptoms being pain/soreness, headache and stiffness.
  • 61.5% of the chiropractors reported trying a mitigation strategy with their patients.
  • Yet only 21.2% of patients perceived their clinicians had tried any mitigation strategy.
  • Chiropractors perceived that patient education is most likely to mitigate benign AEs, followed by soft tissue therapy and/or icing after SMT.
  • Patients perceived stretching was most likely to mitigate benign AEs, followed by education and/or massage

 

The authors concluded that this is the first study comparing beliefs, perceptions and practices from clinicians and patients regarding benign AEs post-SMT and strategies to mitigate them. This study provides an important step towards identifying the best strategies to improve patient safety and improve quality of care.

The question that I have often asked before, and I am bound to ask again after seeing such results, is this:

If there were a drug that causes temporary pain/soreness, headache and stiffness in 55% of all patients (plus an unknown frequency of a long list of serious complications), while being of uncertain benefit, do you think it would still be on the market?

 

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