One of the aims in running this blog has always been to stimulate critical thinking (not just in my readers but also in myself).
Critical thinking means making decisions and judgements based on (often confusing) evidence. According to the ‘National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking’ it is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analysing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.
Carl Sagan explained it best: “It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones.”
Critical thinking is not something one is born with; but I strongly believe that most people can be taught this skill. This study suggests that I may be right. The researchers measured the relationship between student’s religion, gender, and propensity for fantasy thinking with the change in belief for paranormal and pseudoscientific subjects following a science and critical thinking course. Student pre-course endorsement of religious, paranormal, and pseudo-scientific beliefs ranged from 21 to 53%, with religion having the highest endorsement rate. Pre-course belief in paranormal and pseudo-scientific subjects was correlated with high scores in some fantasy thinking scales and showed a gender and a religion effect with females having an 11.1% higher belief across all paranormal and pseudo-science subcategories. Students’ religion, and frequency of religious service attendance, was also important with agnostic or atheist students having lower beliefs in paranormal and pseudo-science subjects compared to religious students. Students with either low religious service attendance or very high attendance had lower paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs.
Following the critical thinking course, overall beliefs in paranormal and pseudo-scientific subcategories lowered 6.8–28.9%, except for superstition, which did not significantly change. Change in belief had both a gender and religion effect with greater reductions among religious students and females.
The link between religion and alternative medicine is relatively well-established. A 2014 study, for instance, showed an association between alternative medicine use and religiosity. The finding that females have an 11.1% higher belief in the paranormal and pseudo-science is new to me, but it would tie in with the well-documented fact that women use alternative medicine more frequently than men.
The most important finding, however, is clearly that critical thinking can be taught.
That must be good news! As discussed previously, critical thinkers experience fewer bad things in life than those of us who do not have acquired that skill. This cannot come as a surprise – being able to tell useful concepts from worthless ones should achieve exactly that.
In Germany, homeopathy had been an undisputed favourite for a very long time. Doctors prescribed it, Heilpraktiker recommended it, patients took it and consumers, politicians, journalists, etc. hardly ever questioned it. But recently, this has changed; thanks not least to the INH and the ‘Muensteraner Kreis‘, some Germans are finally objecting to paying for the homeopathic follies of others. Remarkably, this might even have led to a dent in the sizable profits of homeopathy producers: while in 2016 the industry sold about 55 million units of homeopathic preparations, the figure had decreased to ‘just’ ~53 million in 2017.
Enough reason, it seems, for some manufacturers to panic. The largest one is the DHU (Deutsche Homoeopathische Union), and they recently decided to go on the counter attack by investing into a large PR campaign. This article (in German, I’m afraid) explains:
…Unter dem Hashtag #MachAuchDuMit lädt die Initiative Anwenderinnen und Anwender ein, ihre guten Erfahrungen in Sachen Homöopathie zu teilen. “Über 30 Millionen zufriedene Menschen setzen für ihre Gesundheit auf Homöopathie und vertrauen ihr. Mit unserer Initiative wollen wir das Selbstbewusstsein der Menschen stärken, sich für die Homöopathie zu entscheiden oder mindestens für eine freie Wahl einzustehen,” so Peter Braun, Geschäftsführer der DHU…
“Die Therapiefreiheit, die in unserem Slogan mit “Meine Entscheidung!” zum Ausdruck kommt, ist uns das wichtigste in dieser Initiative”, unterstreicht Peter Braun. Und dafür lohnt es sich aktiv zu werden, wie der Schweizer weiß. 2017 haben sich die Menschen in der Schweiz per Volksabstimmung für das Konzept einer integrativen Medizin entschieden. Neben der Schulmedizin können dort auch weitere Therapieverfahren wie Homöopathie oder Naturmedizin zum Einsatz kommen.
In Deutschland will die DHU mit ihrer Initiative Transparenz schaffen und die Homöopathie hinsichtlich Fakten und Erfolge realistisch darstellen. Dafür besteht offensichtlich Bedarf: “Wir als DHU haben in der jüngsten Vergangenheit dutzende spontane Anfragen bekommen, für die Homöopathie Flagge zu zeigen”.
Was die Inhalte der Initiative angeht betont Peter Braun, dass es dabei nie um ein “Entweder-Oder” zwischen Schulmedizin und anderen Therapieverfahren gehen soll: “Die Kombination der jeweils am besten für den Patienten passenden Methode im Sinne von “Hand-in-Hand” ist das Ziel der modernen integrativen Medizin. In keiner Art und Weise ist eine Entscheidung für die Homöopathie eine Entscheidung gegen die Schulmedizin. Beides hat seine Berechtigung und ergänzt sich in vielen Fällen.”
For those who do not read German, I will pick out a few central themes from the text.
Amongst other things, the DHU proclaim that:
- Homeopathy has millions of satisfied customers in Germany.
- The campaign aims at defending customers’ choice.
- The campaign declares to present the facts realistically.
- The decision is “never an ‘either or’ between conventional medicine (Schulmedizin) and other methods”; combining those therapies that suit the patient best is the aim of modern Integrative Medicine.
It is clear to anyone who is capable of critical thinking tha
t these 4 points are fallacious to the extreme. For those to whom it isn’t so clear, let me briefly explain:
- The ‘appeal to popularity’ is a classical fallacy.
- Nobody wants to curtail patients’ freedom to chose the therapy they want. The discussion is about who should pay for ineffective remedies. Even if homeopathy will, one day, be no longer reimbursable in Germany, consumers will still be able to buy it with their own money.
- The campaign has so far not presented the facts about homeopathy (i. e. the remedies contain nothing, homeopathy relies on implausible assumptions, the evidence fails to show that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are effective beyond placebo).
- Hahnemann called all homeopaths who combined his remedies with conventional treatments ‘traitors’ (‘Verraeter’) and coined the term ‘Schulmedizin’ to defame mainstream medicine.
The DHU campaign has only started recently, but already it seems to backfire big way. Social media are full with comments pointing out how pathetic it truly is, and many Germans have taken to making fun at it on social media. Personally, I cannot say I blame them – not least because the latest DHU campaign reminds me of the 2012 DHU-sponsored PR campaign. At the time, quackometer reported:
A consortium of pharmaceutical companies in Germany have been paying a journalist €43,000 to run a set of web sites that denigrates an academic who has published research into their products.
These companies, who make homeopathic sugar pills, were exposed in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in an article, Schmutzige Methoden der sanften Medizin (The Dirty Tricks of Alternative Medicine.)
This story has not appeared in the UK media. And it should. Because it is a scandal that directly involves the UK’s most prominent academic in Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
The newspaper accuses the companies of funding the journalist, Claus Fritzsche, to denigrate critics of homeopathy. In particular, the accusation is that Fritzsche wrote about UK academic Professor Edzard Ernst on several web sites and then linked them together in order to raise their Google ranking. Fritzsche continually attacks Ernst of being frivolous, incompetent and partisan…
This story ended tragically; Fritzsche committed suicide.
My impression is that the PR-campaigns of homeopaths in general and the DHU in particular are rather ill-fated. Perhaps they should just forget about PR and do what responsible manufacturers should aim at doing: inform the public according to the best evidence currently available, even if this might make a tiny dent in their huge profits.
Today, enthusiasts of homeopathy celebrate the start of the HOMEOPATHY AWARENESS WEEK. Let’s join them by re-addressing one of their favourite themes: their personal experience with homeopathy.
Most homeopathy-fans argue that the negative scientific evidence must be wrong because they have had positive experiences. Whenever I give a lecture, for instance, there will be at least one person in the audience who presents such an experience (and I too could contribute a few such stories from my own past). Such ‘case reports’ can, of course, be interesting, illuminating or leading to further research, but they can never be conclusive.
This concept is often profoundly confusing for patients and consumers. They tend to feel that I am doubting their words, but nothing could be further from the truth. Their experience is certainly true – what might be false is their interpretation of it. I think, I better explain this in more detail using a concrete, published example.
After the publication of our 2003 RCT of homeopathic Arnica which showed that two different potencies have effects that do not differ from those of placebo, I received lots of angry responses from people who told me that they had the opposite experience or observed positive outcomes on their pets. In my subsequent publication in the journal ‘Homeopathy‘ entitled ‘The benefits of Arnica: 16 case reports‘, I have tried my best to explain their experiences in the light of our finding that highly diluted homeopathic Arnica is a placebo:
Sixteen case reports of the apparent beneﬁts of Arnica … raise several relevant points. Firstly, topical Arnica preparations are often wrongly equated with homeopathic Arnica, the subject of our trial. The former are herbal preparations (ie not homeopathically diluted), which have undisputed pharmacological activity. Taken orally they would even be toxic. Thus all Arnica for oral administration must be highly diluted and has therefore no pharmacological effects. The case reports show that many lay people seem to be unclear about the difference between herbal and homeopathic Arnica.
Secondly, if animals seem to respond to homeopathic Arnica, as claimed in several of the case reports, this is not necessarily a proof of its effectiveness. Animals are not immune to placebo effects. Think of Pavlov’s experiments and the fact that conditioning is clearly an element in the placebo response.
Thirdly, the natural history of the condition can mimic clinical improvement caused by therapy. Many of the 16 cases summarized can be explained through a placebo response or the natural history of disease or the combination of both phenomena…
Many of the letters I received were outspoken to say the least. The authors stated that they were ‘appalled’, ‘saddened and angry’ by our research. Others implied that I was paid by the pharmaceutical industry to abolish homeopathy in the UK. One person felt that ‘it is highly irresponsible to dismiss a natural healing remedy with no evidence at all’. I believe the case reports … convey an important message about the power of belief, anecdotes, placebos and expectation.
END OF QUOTE
The thing about case reports and personal experiences is quite simply this: they may seem almost overwhelmingly convincing, but they can NEVER serve as a proof that the treatment in question was effective. The reason for this fact could not be more simple. Any therapeutic response is due to a complex combination of factors: placebo effects, natural history of the condition, regression to the mean, etc.
See it this way: you wake up one morning with an enormous hangover. You try to identify the cause of it. Was it the beer you had in the pub? The wine you drank before you went out? Or the whiskey you consumed before you went to bed? Perhaps you think it was the Cognac you enjoyed at a friend’s house? Only one thing is for sure: it was not the glass of shaken water you drank during the night.
An article in yesterday’ Times makes the surprising claim that ‘doctors turn to herbal cures when the drugs don’t work’. As the subject is undoubtedly relevant to this blog and as the Times is a highly respected newspaper, I think this might be important and will therefore comment (in normal print) on the full text of the article (in bold print):
GPs are increasingly dissatisfied with doling out pills that do not work for illnesses with social and emotional roots, and a surprising number of them end up turning to alternative medicine.
What a sentence! I would have thought that GPs have always been ‘dissatisfied’ with treatments that are ineffective. But who says they turn to alternative medicine in ‘surprising numbers’ (our own survey does not confirm the notion)? And what is a ‘surprising number’ anyway (zero would be surprising, in my view)?
Charlotte Mendes da Costa is unusual in being both an NHS GP and a registered homeopath. Her frustration with the conventional approach of matching a medicine to a symptom is growing as doctors increasingly see the limits, and the risks, of such a tactic.
Do we get the impression that THE TIMES does not know that homeopathy is not herbal medicine? Do they know that ‘matching a medicine to a symptom’ is what homeopaths believe they are doing? Real doctors try to find the cause of a symptom and, whenever possible, treat it.
She asks patients with sore throats questions that few other GPs pose: “What side is it? Is it easier to swallow solids or liquids? What time of day is it worst?” Dr Mendes da Costa is trying to find out which homeopathic remedy to prescribe. But when NHS guidance for sore throats aims mainly to convince patients that they will get better on their own, her questions are just as important as her prescription.
This section makes no sense. Sore throats do get better on their own, that’s a fact. And empathy is not a monopoly of homeopaths. But Dr Mendes Da Costa might be somewhat detached from reality; she once promoted the nonsensical notion that “up to the end of 2010, 156 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in homeopathy had been carried out with 41% reporting positive effects, whereas only 7% have been negative. The remainder were non-conclusive.” (see more on this particular issue here)
“It’s very difficult to disentangle the effect of listening to someone properly, in a non-judgmental way, and taking a real rather than a superficial interest,” she says. “With a sore throat [I was trained] really only to be interested in, ‘Do they need antibiotics or not?’ ”
In this case, she should ask her money back; her medical school seems to have been rubbish in training her adequately.
This week a Lancet series on back pain said that millions of patients were getting treatments that did them no good. A government review is looking into how one in 11 people has come to be on potentially addictive drugs such as tranquillisers, opioid painkillers and antidepressants.
Yes, and how is that an argument for homeopathy? It isn’t! It seems to come from the textbook of fallacies.
And this week a BMJ Open study found that GPs with alternative training prescribed a fifth fewer antibiotics.
That study was akin to showing that butchers sell less vegetables than green-grocers. It provided no argument at all for implying that homeopathy is a valuable therapy.
Doctors seem receptive to alternative approaches: in a poll on its website 70 per cent agreed that doctors should recommend acupuncture to patients in pain. The Faculty of Homeopathy now counts 400 doctors among its 700 healthcare professional members.
Wow! Does the Times journalist know that the ‘Faculty of Homeopathy’ is primarily an organisation for doctor homeopaths? If so, why are these figures anything to write home about? And does the author appreciate that the pole was open not just to doctors but to to anyone (particularly those who were motivated, like acupuncturists)?
This horrifies many academics, who say that there is almost no evidence that complementary therapies work.
It horrifies nobody, I’d say. It puzzles some people, and not just academics. And their claim of a lack of sound evidence is evidence-based.
“It’s a false battle”, says Michael Dixon, a GP who chairs the College of Medicine, which is trying to broaden the focus on treatment to patients’ whole lives. “GPs are practical. If a patient gets better that’s all that matters.”
Dr Dixon says there are enormous areas of illness ranging from chronic pain to irritable bowels where few conventional treatments have been shown to be particularly effective, so why not try alternatives with fewer side effects?
Unable to diagnose and treat adequately, let’s all do the next worst thing and apply some outright quackery?!? Logic does not seem to be Dixon’s strong point, does it?
He recommends herbal remedies such as pelargonium — “like a geranium, quite a pretty little flower” — acupressure, and techniques such as self-hypnosis. To those who say these are placebos he replies: so what?
So what indeed! There are over 200 species of pelargonium; only 2 or 3 of them are used in herbal medicine. I don’t suppose Dr Dixon wants to poison us?
“Aromatherapy does work, but only if you believe in it, that’s the way you have to look at it, like a mother kissing knees better.” He continues: “We are healers. That’s what we do as doctors. You can call it theatrical or you can call it a relationship. A lot of patients come in with a metaphor — a headache is actually unhappiness — and the treatment is symbolic.”
It frightens me to know that there are doctors out there who think like this!
What if a patient is seriously ill?
A cancer is a metaphor for what exactly?
As doctors, we have the ethical duty to apply BOTH the science and the art of medicine, BOTH efficacious, evidence-based therapies AND compassion. Can I be so bold as to recommend our book about the ethics of alternative medicine to Dixon?
Such talk makes conventional doctors very nervous. Yet acupuncture illustrates their dilemma. It used to be recommended by the NHS for back pain because patients did improve. Now it is not, after further evidence suggested that patients given placebo “sham acupuncture” did just as well.
No, acupuncture used to be recommended by NICE because there was some evidence; when subsequently more rigorous trials emerged showing that it does NOT work, NICE stopped recommending it. Real medicine develops – it’s only alternative medicine and its proponents that seem to be stuck in the past and resist progress.
Martin Underwood, of the University of Warwick, asks: “So are you going to say, ‘Well, patients get better than they would do otherwise’? Or say it’s all theatrical placebo because it shows no benefit over sham treatment? That’s the question for society.”
Society has long answered it! The answer is called evidence-based medicine. We are not content using quackery for its placebo response; we know that effective treatments do that too, and we want to make progress and improve healthcare of tomorrow.
Although many doctors agree that they need to look at patients more broadly, they insist they do not need to turn to unproven treatments. The magic ingredient, they say, is not an alternative remedy, but time. Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Practices which offer alternative therapies tend to spend longer with patients . . . allowing for more in-depth conversations.”
I am sorry, if this post turned into a bit of a lengthy rant. But it was needed, I think: if there ever was a poorly written, ill focussed, badly researched and badly argued article on alternative medicine, it must be this one.
Did I call the Times a highly respected paper?
I take it back.
Do chiropractors even know the difference between promotion and research?
Probably a rhetorical question.
Personally, I have seen them doing so much pseudo-research that I doubt they recognise the real thing, even if they fell over it.
Here is a recent example that stands for many, many more such ‘research’ projects (some of which have been discussed on this blog).
But first a few sentences on the background of this new ‘study’.
The UD chiropractic profession is currently on the ‘opioid over-use bandwagon’ hoping that this move might promote their trade. Most chiropractors have always been against using (any type of) pharmaceutical treatment and advise their patients accordingly. D D Palmer, the founder of chiropractic, was adamant that drugs are to be avoided; he stated for instance that Drugs are delusive; they do not adjust anything. And “as the Founder intended, chiropractic has existed as a drug-free healthcare profession for better than 120 years.” To this day, chiropractors are educated and trained to argue against non-drug treatments and regularly claim that chiropractic is a drug-free alternative to traditional medicine.
Considering this background, this new piece of (pseudo) research is baffling, in my view.
The objective of this investigation was to evaluate the association between utilization of chiropractic services and the use of prescription opioid medications. The authors used a retrospective cohort design to analyse health insurance claims data. The data source was the all payer claims database administered by the State of New Hampshire. The authors chose New Hampshire because health claims data were readily available for research, and in 2015, New Hampshire had the second-highest age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths in the United States.
The study population comprised New Hampshire residents aged 18-99 years, enrolled in a health plan, and with at least two clinical office visits within 90 days for a primary diagnosis of low-back pain. The authors excluded subjects with a diagnosis of cancer. They measured likelihood of opioid prescription fill among recipients of services delivered by chiropractors compared with a control group of patients not consulting a chiropractor. They also compared the cohorts with regard to rates of prescription fills for opioids and associated charges.
The adjusted likelihood of filling a prescription for an opioid analgesic was 55% lower among chiropractic compared to non-chiropractic patients. Average charges per person for opioid prescriptions were also significantly lower among the former group.
The authors concluded that among New Hampshire adults with office visits for noncancer low-back pain, the likelihood of filling a prescription for an opioid analgesic was significantly lower for recipients of services delivered by doctors of chiropractic compared with nonrecipients. The underlying cause of this correlation remains unknown, indicating the need for further investigation.
The underlying cause remains unknown???
Let me speculate, or even better, let me extrapolate by drawing an analogy:
Employees by a large Hamburger chain set out to study the association between utilization of Hamburger restaurant services and vegetarianism. The authors used a retrospective cohort design. The study population comprised New Hampshire residents aged 18-99 years, who had entered the premises of a Hamburger restaurant within 90 days for a primary purpose of eating. The authors excluded subjects with a diagnosis of cancer. They measured the likelihood of vegetarianism among recipients of services delivered by Hamburger restaurants compared with a control group of individuals not using meat-dispensing facilities. They also compared the cohorts with regard to the money spent in Hamburger restaurants.
The adjusted likelihood of being a vegetarian was 55% lower among the experimental group compared to controls. The average money spent per person in Hamburger restaurants were also significantly lower among the Hamburger group.
The authors concluded that among New Hampshire adults visiting Hamburger restaurants, the likelihood of vegetarianism was significantly lower for consumers frequenting Hamburger restaurants compared with those who failed to frequent such places. The underlying cause of this correlation remains unknown, indicating the need for further investigation.
“MDs do not make false claims HAHAHA.”
This is from a comment I recently received on this blog.
It made me think.
Yes, of course, MDs do not always reveal the full truth to their patients; sometimes they might even tell lies (in this post, I shall use the term ‘lies’ for any kind of untruth).
So, what about these lies?
The first thing to say about them is obvious: THEY CAN NEVER JUSTIFY THE LIES OF OTHERS.
- the lies of the Tories cannot justify the lies of Labour party members,
- the lies of a plaintiff in court cannot justify any lies of the defendant,
- the lies of MDs cannot justify the lies of alternative practitioners.
The second thing to say about the lies of MDs is that, in my experience, most are told in the desire to protect patients. In some cases, this may be ill-advised or ethically questionable, but the motivation is nevertheless laudable.
- I might not tell the truth when I say (this really should be ‘said’, because I have not treated patients for many years) THIS WILL NOT HURT AT ALL. In the end, it hurt quite a bit but we all understand why I lied.
- I might claim that this treatment is sure to work (knowing full well that such a prediction is impossible), but we all know that I said so in order to maximise my patient’s compliance and expectation in order to generate the best possible outcome.
- I might dismiss a patient’s fear that his condition is incurable (while strongly suspecting that it is), but I would do this to improve his anxiety and well-being.
Yet, these are not the type of lies my commentator referred to. In fact, he provided a few examples of the lies MDs tell, in his opinion. He claimed that:
- They tell them that diabetes is not curable. False claim
- They compare egg intake with smoking on their affect to your health. False claim
- They say arthroscopic surgery of the knee is beneficial. False claim
- They state that surgery, chemo, and radiation is the only treatment for cancer. False claim
- They say that family association is the cause of most inflammatory conditions. False claim
I don’t want to go into the ‘rights or wrongs’ of these claims (mostly wrongs, as far as I can see). Instead, I would argue that any MD who makes a claim that is wrong behaves unethical and should retrain. If he erroneously assumes the claim to be correct, he is not fully informed (which, of course is unethical in itself) and needs to catch up with the current best evidence. If he makes a false claim knowing that it is wrong, he behaves grossly unethical and must justify himself in front of his professional disciplinary committee.
As this blog focusses on alternative medicine, let’s briefly consider the situation in that area. The commentator made his comments in connection to a post about chiropractic, so let’s look at the situation in chiropractic.
- Do many chiropractors claim to be able to treat a wide array of conditions without good evidence?
- Do they misadvise patients about conventional treatments, such as vaccinations?
- Do they claim that their spinal manipulations are safe?
- Do they tell patients they need regular ‘maintenance treatment’ to stay healthy?
- Do they claim to be able to diagnose subluxations?
- Do they pretend that subluxations cause illness and disease?
- Do they claim to adjust subluxations?
If you answered several of these questions with YES, I probably have made my point.
On reflection, it turns out that clinicians of all types do tell lies. Some are benign/white lies and others are fundamental, malignant lies. Most of us probably agree that the former category is largely negligible. The latter category can, however, be serious. In my experience, it is hugely more prevalent in the realm of alternative medicine. When it occurs in conventional medicine, appropriate measures are in place to prevent reoccurrence. When it occurs in alternative medicine, nobody seems to bat an eyelash.
My conclusion from these random thoughts: the truth is immeasurably valuable, and lies can be serious and often are damaging to patients. Therefore, we should always pursue those who tell serious lies, no matter whether they are MDs or alternative practitioners.
How often have we heard this? YOU ARE WRONG! MY TREATMENT DOES WORK!!! ONLY THE OTHER DAY, I HAD A PATIENT WHO WAS CURED BY IT.
Take for instance this tweet I got yesterday:
You go too far @EdzardErnst. In fact I was consulted about a child who hadn’t grown after an accident. She responded well to homoeopathy and grew. How much are you being paid for your attempts to deny people’s health choices?
The tweet refers to my last post where I exposed homeopathic child abuse. Having thought about Thomas’ tweet, I must say that I find it too to be abusive – even abusive on 4 different levels.
- First, the tweet is obviously a personal attack suggesting that I am bribed into doing what I do. I have stated it many times, and I do so again: I receive no payment from anyone for my work. How then do I survive? I have a pension and savings (not that this is anyone’s business).
- Second, it is abusive because it claims that children who suffer from a pathological growth retardation can benefit from homeopathy. There is no evidence for that at all, and making false claims of this nature is unethical and, in this case, even abusive.
- Third, if Thomas really did make the observation she suggests in her tweet and is convinced that her homeopathic treatment was the cause of the child’s improvement, she has an ethical duty to do something more about it than just shooting off a flippant tweet. She could, for instance, run a clinical trial to find out whether her observation was correct. I admit this might be beyond her means. So alternatively, she could write up the case in full detail and publish it for all of us to scrutinise her findings. This is the very minimum a responsible clinician ought to do when she comes across a novel and potentially important result. Anything else is my view unethical and hinders progress.
I do, of course, sympathise with lay people who fail to fully understand the concept of causality. But surely, healthcare professionals who pride themselves of taking charge of patients ought to have some comprehension of it. They should know that clinical improvements after a treatment is not necessarily the same as clinical improvement because of the treatment. Is it really too much to ask of them to know the criteria for causality? There is plenty of easy-reading on the subject; even Wikipedia has a good article on it:
In 1965, the English statistician Sir Austin Bradford Hill proposed a set of nine criteria to provide epidemiologic evidence of a causal relationship between a presumed cause and an observed effect. (For example, he demonstrated the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.) The list of the criteria is as follows:
- Strength (effect size): A small association does not mean that there is not a causal effect, though the larger the association, the more likely that it is causal.
- Consistency (reproducibility): Consistent findings observed by different persons in different places with different samples strengthens the likelihood of an effect.
- Specificity: Causation is likely if there is a very specific population at a specific site and disease with no other likely explanation. The more specific an association between a factor and an effect is, the bigger the probability of a causal relationship.
- Temporality: The effect has to occur after the cause (and if there is an expected delay between the cause and expected effect, then the effect must occur after that delay).
- Biological gradient: Greater exposure should generally lead to greater incidence of the effect. However, in some cases, the mere presence of the factor can trigger the effect. In other cases, an inverse proportion is observed: greater exposure leads to lower incidence.
- Plausibility: A plausible mechanism between cause and effect is helpful (but Hill noted that knowledge of the mechanism is limited by current knowledge).
- Coherence: Coherence between epidemiological and laboratory findings increases the likelihood of an effect. However, Hill noted that “… lack of such [laboratory] evidence cannot nullify the epidemiological effect on associations”.
- Experiment: “Occasionally it is possible to appeal to experimental evidence”.
- Analogy: The effect of similar factors may be considered.
And this brings me to my 4th and last level of abuse in relation to the above tweet and most other claims of this nature: being ill-informed and stupid while insisting to make a nonsensical point is, in my view, offensive – so much so that it can reach the level of abuse.
This is the title of an editorial by Alan Schmukler. You probably remember him; I have featured him before, for instance here, here, and here. This is what was recently on Schmukler’s mind (I have added a few references referring to comments of mine added below):
England’s National Health Service (NHS) is proposing that NHS doctors no longer be permitted to prescribe homeopathic remedies … They claim lack of evidence for effectiveness. Anyone who’s been remotely conscious the last 10 years will see this as a pretext. Homeopathy is practiced by board certified physicians in clinics and hospitals around the world . The massive Swiss review of homeopathy, found it effective, safe and economical, and the Swiss incorporated homeopathy into their national health care system …
The reason given for banning homeopathy and these nutrients is a lie. Why would the NHS ban safe, effective and affordable healing methods?  Without these methods, all that is left are prescription drugs. Apparently, someone at the NHS has an interest in pushing expensive prescription drugs , rather than safer and cheaper alternatives. That someone, also wishes to deny people freedom of choice in medicine . I say “someone”, because organizations don’t make decisions, people do. Who is that someone? In looking for a suspect, we might ask, who is the chief executive of the organization? Who introduced this plan and is promoting it? Who at the NHS has the political clout? Who was it that recently declared: “Homeopathy is a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds which could better be devoted to treatments that work”.
The quote is from Simon Stevens, NHS England’s chief executive. He got the job in 2014, after ten years as a top executive at UnitedHealth, the largest health insurance company in America. His past work experiences and current activities show that he favors privatization . That would make him an odd choice to run a healthcare system based on socialized medicine. In fact, he has been moving the NHS towards privatization and the corporate, profit based American model.  The last thing a privatizer in healthcare would want, are non-proprietary medicines, for which you can’t charge exorbitant fees . Banning homeopathy on the NHS is just one small part of a larger plan to maximize corporate profits by letting corporations own and control the health care system . Before they can do this, they have to eliminate alternative methods of treatment.
Personally, I think Schmukler is wrong – here is why:
1 The current argument is not about what doctors are permitted to do, but about what the NHS should do with our tax money.
2 Argumentum ad populum
3 Oh dear! Anyone who uses this report as evidence must be desperate – see for instance here.
4 Why indeed? Except highly dilute homeopathic remedies are pure placebos.
5 Maybe ‘someone’ merely wants to use effective medications rather than placebos.
6 Freedom of choice is a nonsense, if it is not guided by sound evidence – see here.
7 No, that’s Jeremy Hunt! But in any case privatisation might be more profitable with homeopathy – much higher profit margins without any investment into R&D.
8 No, this is Hunt again!
9 Homeopathic remedies are ideal for making vast profits: no research, no development, no cost for raw material, etc., etc.
10 I am sure Boiron et al would not mind stepping into the gap.
I very much look forward to the next outburst of Alan Schmukler and hope he will manage to think a bit clearer by then.
The Society of Homeopaths (SoH) has launched a campaign to inform the public that, despite everything non-homeopaths may say and despite the undeniable facts about homeopathy, their remedies are highly effective. This article provides a detailed account of their incompetence.
I saw the image below first on Twitter. It is part of their current campaign and summarises ‘POSITIVE MESSAGES ABOUT HOMEOPATHY’ as the SoH proclaim them. Presumably, they did this piece of work to help their members finding the right arguments when defending the indefensible.
I am not usually prone to laughing fits, but this had me in stiches! It is hilarious, I think; a true masterpiece of comedy.
The masterpiece is almost too perfect to tarnish with my comments; however, I cannot resist. Sorry!
I will take the arguments in turn going clockwise and starting with
‘HOMEOPATHY MEDICINES ARE TESTED SAFELY AND EFFECTIVELY ON HEALTHY HUMANS’
Should this not be ‘homeopathic medicines’? In any case, the remedies (medicines seems too strong a word) are tested in so-called ‘provings’ – yes, safely because they normally contain no active ingredient… and effectively? I cannot see why provings might be ‘effective’; they are pure fantasy.
HOMEOPATHY MAKES A POSITIVE CONTRIBUTION TO INTEGRATED HEALTHCARE
No, as we have discussed often on this blog, adding cow pie to apple pie is not a positive contribution to anything.
HOMEOPATHY HAS BEEN AVAILABLE ON THE NHS SINCE 1948
Appeal to tradition = fallacy.
Appeal to authority = fallacy.
HOMEOPATHY PUTS THE PATIENT AT THE CENTRE OF THEIR HEALTHCARE
This too is false logic, because all good medicine puts the patient at the centre; in addition it is grammatically false English (if I as a non-native speaker may be so bold).
HOMEOPATHY IS USED BY 15% OF UK CITIZENS
I doubt it. But even if this figure is correct, an appeal to popularity is a fallacy and not a logical argument.
HOMEOPATHY IS USED BY 450 MILLION PEOPLE WORLDWIDE
I doubt it. But even if this figure is correct, an appeal to popularity is a fallacy and not a logical argument.
HOMEOPATHY IS A SYSTEM OF NATURAL HEALTHCARE THAT HAS BEEN USED WORLDWIDE FOR 200 YEARS
What is ‘natural’ in endlessly diluting things like ‘Berlin Wall’ and pretending it is a medicine? In any case, the appeal to tradition is yet another fallacy.
HOMEOPATHY DOES NOT CONTRADICT SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS, IT IS PART OF IT
This is where I almost fell off my chair; homeopathy is the opposite of progress, it is a dogma and a belief-system.
HOMEOPATHY IS HOLISTIC
All good medicine is holistic; arguably, homeopathy is not holistic.
HOMEOPATHY IS EFFECTIVE IN BOTH ACUTE AND CHRONIC ILLNESS
Yes, this is what homeopaths believe, but it is not true.
To conclude what better than quoting the person who, a long time ago, said: “HOMEOPATHS ARE THE CLOWNS AMONGST THE HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONALS” ?
George Vithoulkas * (GV) is one of today’s most influential lay-homeopaths, a real ‘super guru’. He has many bizarre ideas; one of the most peculiar one was recently outlined in his article entitled ‘An innovative proposal for scientific alternative medical journals’. Here are a few excerpts from it:
…the only evidence that homeopathy can present to the scientific world at this moment are these thousands of cured cases. It is a waste of time, money, and energy to attempt to demonstrate the effectiveness of homeopathy through double blind trials.
… the international “scientific” community, which has neither direct perception nor personal experience of the beneficial effects of homeopathy, is forced to repeat the same old mantra: “Where is the evidence? Show us the evidence!” … the successes of homeopathy have remained hidden in the offices of hardworking homeopaths – and thus go largely ignored by the world’s medical authorities, governments, and the whole international scientific community…
… simple questions that are usually asked by the “gnorant”, for example, “Can homeopathy cure cancer, multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, etc.?” are invalid and cannot elicit a direct answer because the reality is that many such cases can be ameliorated significantly, and a number can be cured…
A journal could invite a selected number of good prescribers from all over the world as a start to this project and let them contribute to their honest experience and results, as well as their failures. The possibilities and limitations would soon be revealed…
I admit that an argument against accepting cases is that it is possible that false or unreliable information could be provided. This risk could be minimized by preselecting a well-known group of good prescribers, who could be asked to submit their cases, at least in the first phase of such a radical change in the policy of the journals…
This way, instead of rejecting important homeopathic case studies, in the name of a dry intellectualism and conservatism, homeopathy journals (including alternative and complementary journals) could become lively and interesting: initiating debates and discussions on real issues of therapeutics in medicine…
Our own “Evidence Based Medicine” lies in the multitude of chronic cases treated with homeopathy that we can present to the world and on the better quality of life that such cures offer.
END OF QUOTES
So, GV wants homeopathy to thrive by means of publishing lots of case reports of patients who benefitted from homeopathy. And he believes that this suggestion is ‘innovative’? It is not! Case reports were all the rage 150 years ago before medicine started to become a little more scientific. And today, there are several journals specialising in the publication of case-reports, hundreds of journals that like accepting them, as well as dozens of websites that do little else but publishing case reports of homeopathy.
But case reports essentially are anecdotes. Medicine finally managed to progress from its dark ages when we realised how unreliable case reports truly are. To state it yet again (especially for GV who seems to be a bit slow on the uptake): THE PLURAL OF ANECDOTE IS ANECDOTES, NOT EVIDENCE!
In the above article, GV claims that ‘it is a waste of time, money, and energy to attempt to demonstrate the effectiveness of homeopathy through double blind trials.’ That is most puzzling because, only a few years ago, he did publish this:
Alternative therapies in general, and homeopathy in particular, lack clear scientific evaluation of efficacy. Controlled clinical trials are urgently needed, especially for conditions that are not helped by conventional methods. The objective of this work was to assess the efficacy of homeopathic treatment in relieving symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS). It was a randomised controlled double-blind clinical trial. Two months baseline assessment with post-intervention follow-up for 3 months was conducted at Hadassah Hospital outpatient gynaecology clinic in Jerusalem in Israel 1992-1994. The subjects were 20 women, aged 20-48, suffering from PMS. Homeopathic intervention was chosen individually for each patient, according to a model of symptom clusters. Recruited volunteers with PMS were treated randomly with one oral dose of a homeopathic medication or placebo. The main outcome measure was scores of a daily menstrual distress questionnaire (MDQ) before and after treatment. Psychological tests for suggestibility were used to examine the possible effects of suggestion. Mean MDQ scores fell from 0.44 to 0.13 (P<0.05) with active treatment, and from 0.38 to 0.34 with placebo (NS). (Between group P=0.057). Improvement >30% was observed in 90% of patients receiving active treatment and 37.5% receiving placebo (P=0.048). Homeopathic treatment was found to be effective in alleviating the symptoms of PMS in comparison to placebo. The use of symptom clusters in this trial may offer a novel approach that will facilitate clinical trials in homeopathy. Further research is in progress.
I find this intriguing, particularly because the ‘further research’ mentioned prominently in the conclusions never did surface! Perhaps its results turned out to be unfavourable to homeopathy? Perhaps this is why GV dislikes RCTs these days? Perhaps this is why he prefers case reports such as this one which he recently published:
START OF QUOTE
An 81-year-old female patient was admitted in July 2015 to the Cardiovascular Surgery Department of a hospital in Bucharest for an aortic valve replacement surgery.
The patient had a history of mild hypertension, insulin-dependent type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure NYHA 2, severe aortic stenosis, moderate mitral regurgitation, mild pulmonary hypertension, bilateral carotid atheromatosis with a 50% stenosis of the left internal carotid artery, complete right mastectomy for breast cancer (at that moment in remission).
After a preoperative evaluation and preparation, the surgery was completed with the replacement of the aortic valve with a bioprosthesis (Medtronic Hancock II Ultra no. 23) and myocardial revascularization by using a double aortic-coronary bypass.
The post-operatory evolution was a good one in terms of the heart disease. However, the patient did not regain consciousness after the anaesthesia, maintaining a deep comatose state (GCS 7 points – E1V2M4).
A brain CT was performed the third day postoperatively, showing no recent ischemic or haemorrhagic cerebral lesions, moderate diffuse cerebral atrophy and carotid atheromatosis.
After the surgery, the patient was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit and was treated by using a multidisciplinary approach. The patient was treated with inotropic, antiarrhythmic, and diuretic drugs, insulin and antidiabetic drugs were used in order to keep the blood sugar levels under control. The patient was kept hydrated and the electrolytes balanced by using an i.v. line, prophylaxis for deep vein thrombosis, and pulmonary thromboembolism was performed by using low molecular weight heparin. Prophylaxis for bedsores was also performed by using a pressure relieve air mattress.
The patient went into acute respiratory distress, needing mechanical ventilation in order to maintain oxygenation.
Despite these complex and correctly performed therapeutic efforts, the patient did not regain consciousness and was still in a deep coma in the fourteenth day post-operatory (GCS 7 points – E1V2M4), without having a confirmed medical explanation.
At that point, the patient’s family requested a consult from a homeopathic specialist.
The homeopathic examination, which was performed in the fourteenth day postoperatively, revealed the following: old, comatose, tranquil patient, with pale and cold skin, with the need to uncover herself (the few movements that she made with her hands were to remove her blanket and clothes, as if she wanted more air – “thirst for air”), abdominal distension, and bloating.
The thorough evaluation of the patient and the analysis of her symptoms led us to the remedy most appropriate for this critical situation – Carbo Vegetabilis.
Homeopathic treatment was initiated the same day, by using Carbo Vegetabilis 200CH 7 granules twice a day, administered diluted in 20ml of water by using a nasogastric tube.
The patient’s evolution was spectacular. The next day after the initiation of the treatment (fifteenth day postoperatively) the patient was in a superficial coma (GCS 11 points – E2V4M5), and the following day she regained consciousness. Carbo Vegetabilis was administered in the same dose for a total of five days (including the nineteenth day postoperatively).
After these five days, the case was reassessed from a homeopathically point of view and the second evaluation revealed the following: severely dyspnoeic patient (even talking caused exhaustion) with pale skin, severe fatigue aggravated by the slightest movements, a weakness sensation located in the chest area, extreme lack of energy, the wish “to be left alone”.
Considering the state of general exhaustion the patient was in at that moment and her lack of energy, the homeopathic treatment was changed to a new remedy: Stanum metallicum 30CH 7 granules administered sublingually twice a day for a week.
After the administration of the second remedy, the patient’s general condition improved dramatically: she started eating, she was able to get up in a sitting position with only little help, her fatigue diminished significantly.
The patient was then transferred to a recovery clinic in Cluj-Napoca in order to continue the cardiovascular recovery treatment. During her three-week admission in the clinic, she followed an individualized cardiovascular recovery program, which led to her ability to walk short distances with minimal support and has was released from the hospital in September 2015.
The following weeks after release, the patient recovered almost entirely, both physically and mentally. She was able to retake her place in her family and in society in general.
END OF QUOTE
One has to be a homeopath (one who is ignorant of the ‘post hoc propter hoc fallacy’) to believe in a causal link between the intake of the homeopathic remedy and the recovery of this patient. Thankfully, comatose patients do re-gain consciousness all the time! Even without homeopathy! But GV seems to not know that. In the discussion of this paper, he even states this: “… even after a well-conducted therapy, this condition leads to the death of the patient.” Is it ethical to publish such falsehoods, I wonder?
As far as the case report goes, the homeopathic remedy might even have delayed the process – perhaps the patient would have re-gained consciousness quicker and more completely without it! My hypothesis (homeopathy cased harm) is exactly as strong and silly as the one (homeopathy cased benefit) of GV. Anecdotes will never be able to answer the question as to who is correct.
One has to be a homeopath (and a daft one at that) to believe that this sort of evidence will lead to the acceptance of homeopathy by the scientific community. No journal will take GV seriously. No editor can be that stupid!
Oooops! Hold on, I might be wrong here.
Dr Peter Fisher, editor of the journal ‘Homeopathy’ just published an editorial ( Fisher P, Homeopathy and intellectual honesty, Homeopathy (2017), see also my previous post) stating that, in future, ‘we will increase publication of well-documented case-reports’.
Did I just claim that no editor can be that stupid?
- I should declare a conflict of interest: when he got his ‘Right Livelihood Award’, GV sent me (and other prominent homeopathy-researchers) some of the prize money (I think it was around £ 1000) to support my research in homeopathy. I used it for exactly that purpose.