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

fallacy

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‘HOMEOPATHY360’ are fiercely decided to defend homeopathy, no matter what. They state that we promise to stand by your side always to fight against the critical attacks on Homeopathy… Therefore, I was not really surprised when, a couple of days ago, I received an email by them urging me to support US homeopaths against the threat by the FDA. Here is part of this correspondence:

… If you want to know more about the FDA’s proposed new rules for homeopathic medicines, here’s a summary of the most important points:

  • The new rules, if adopted, will allow the FDA to withdraw even properly manufactured and labeled homeopathic medicines from the marketplace. This is puzzling because these have never posed any sort of safety concern according to an initial review of public FDA records by Americans for Homeopathy Choice.
  • It is clear that the FDA intends to use this authority and has even mentioned specific medicines such as Belladonna, Nux vomica and Lachesis muta in its public statements regarding enforcement.
  • The authority for this kind of assault on homeopathy will result from the declaration by the FDA that all homeopathic medicines are “new drugs.” We all know this is nonsense. Homeopathic medicines have been around for 200 years.
  • But this nonsense declaration means that under U.S. law all homeopathic remedies will become technically “illegal” and subject to withdrawal from the marketplace. If the FDA just thinks there is a problem with a homeopathic medicine, it can withdraw it forever without conducting any sort of investigation.
  • Since the agency has already said that it thinks that Belladonna, Nux vomica, Lachesis muta and several other remedies are dangerous, we can anticipate that it will try to remove them from the marketplace as soon as its new rules are adopted.
  • But, it won’t be possible for Americans to get remedies that are banned sent to them from abroad. The FDA will simply stop these remedies at the border.

I could tell you more, but what I’ve told you so far should convince you that we ought to help the American homeopathy community defeat these unreasonable and misinformed rules. The rules simply do not reflect the realities of homeopathic medicines, namely, that they are nontoxic, mild, effective and have few, if any, side-effects. And, homeopaths use them in ways that individualize treatment. That this is the best way to treat patients was discovered by Samuel Hahnemann 200 years ago.

The enemies of homeopathy are everywhere and they appear to be stepping up their attacks. That’s why the world homeopathy community must work together to stand up to them…

_________________________________________________________________

I have reported about the FDA initiatives on homeopathy before. In 2015, they started it with a public hearing. Since then, the FDA also issued several warnings to manufacturers who were putting consumers at risk (see, for instance, here, here, and here).

What the FDA seem to be trying to do is nothing else but meeting their ethical, moral and legal responsibility vis a vis consumer safety. Homeopathy has had a free ride for far too long. It is high time that this sector joins the 21st century.

The above quote, with its bonanza of bogus claims and falsehoods, shows the urgency of this task. The defenders of homeopathy seem to live on a different planet where rationality, facts and evidence can easily be over-ruled by creed, dogma and wishful thinking. If homeopaths want their trade to join the realm of real medicine they need, at the very minimum, to show with sound evidence:

  1. that their remedies generate more good than harm,
  2. that they adhere to acceptable quality standards.

Failing this – and so far, homeopaths not only failed at this task but continue bombarding us with an incessant flow of bogus and dangerous claims – homeopathics cannot be considered to be medicines, and homeopaths cannot be called responsible healthcare professionals. It is high time to stop turning a blind eye to the double standards that have been applied for 200 years.

Every now and then, I come across a SCAM paper that is so ‘far out’ that, when reading it, my mind wants to boggle. This one (recently published in ‘Medical Acupuncture’) is about ‘paediatric scupuncture’ – no, not acupuncture performed by kids – it’s acupuncture for kids. The temptation to show you the full, unaltered abstract is too strong to resist:

Background: Approaching pediatric acupuncture from a spiritual perspective is the most effective means for providing a valuable holistic relatively noninvasive approach to pediatric acupuncture, as well as preventive treatments for the repulsion of disease and the correction of Qi (i.e., vital energy) imbalances.

Objectives: Parents may be taught to apply acupressure to their children with an excellent response, especially when given with loving kindness.

Materials and Methods: Methods include the use of acupressure, laser techniques, and acupuncture for children who do not display fear toward the shallow insertion of needles.

Results: Owing to the young age of the patients, children will display fast and effective positive responses to therapy, just as they are susceptible to negative effects in similar timeframes. Children will respond faster than adults to such treatments, which can also increase immune system functionality and bolster resistance to invasive forms of Qi imbalances and disease. Such treatments will also relieve pain and distress and improve concentration and mental attitudes in children. Difficult conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD) can also be effectively treated through a spiritual approach to pediatric acupuncture.

Conclusions: Pediatric acupuncture from a spiritual perspective provides a specific, safe, and effective therapy for a wide variety of painful and nonpainful conditions through Qi balancing in children. Moreover, parents may be taught to apply acupressure to their children with an excellent response, especially when given with loving kindness. Such techniques not only resolve acute symptoms but also provide preventive measures and enable parent–child relationships to thrive. Overall, medical acupuncture from a spiritual perspective is one of the best complementary therapies in pediatrics.

Of course, you now wonder who is the genius able to produce such deep wisdom. It is Dr. Steven K.H. Aung. He says of himself that he is a pioneer in the integration of western, traditional Chinese and complementary medicine. His efforts have helped to make Alberta and Canada an active centre in the field of integrated and complementary medicine. His unique approach to medicine, combined with the remarkable compassion he brings to all that he does, has made him a highly respected teacher, researcher and physician.

Doctor Aung’s affiliations are impressive:

  • Clinical Professor, Departments of Medicine & Family Medicine Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Alberta (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada)
  • Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Alberta (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada)
  • Chief instructor, examiner and curriculum consultant for the Medical Acupuncture Program (MAP), Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, Continous Professional Learning, University of Alberta (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada)

In addition, he holds visiting professor appointments at:

  • Beijing University of TCM and Research Institute,
  • Capital University of Medical Sciences (Beijing),
  • Heilongjiang University of TCM (Harbin, China),
  • Showa University School of Medicine (Tokyo),
  • California Institute for Human Science (Encinitas, California),
  • Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (Melbourne, Australia).

And now my mind truly boggles!

There are no representative studies using a probability sample examining whether US physicians recommend so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) to their patients. This article fills a void in the current literature for robust data on recommendations for SCAMs by office-based physicians in the US.

Descriptive statistics and multivariable regression analyses of physician-level data were from the 2012 Physician Induction Interview of the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS PII), a nationally representative survey of office-based physicians. Weighted response rate among eligible physicians sampled for the 2012 NAMCS PII was 59.7%.

Recommendations by physicians to their patients were recorded for any SCAM, and the following individual SCAMs: massage therapy, herbs/nonvitamin supplements, chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation, yoga, acupuncture, and mind–body therapies.

Massage therapy was the most commonly recommended SCAM (30.4%), followed by chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation (27.1%), herbs/nonvitamin supplements (26.5%), yoga (25.6%), and acupuncture (22.4%). The most commonly recommended SCAMs by general/family practice physicians were chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation (54.0%) and massage therapy (52.6%). Of all U.S. physicians, 53.1% recommended at least one SCAM to patients during the previous 12 months. Multivariable analyses found physician’s sex, race, specialty, and U.S. region to be significant predictors of SCAMrecommendations. Female physicians were more likely than male physicians to recommend massage therapy, herbs/nonvitamin supplements, yoga, acupuncture, and mind–body therapies to patients. Psychiatrists, OB/GYNs, and paediatricians were all less likely to recommend chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation than general and family practitioners.

The authors concluded that, overall, more than half of office-based physicians recommended at least one SCAM to their patients. Female physicians recommended every individual SCAM at a higher rate than male physicians except for chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation. These findings may enable consumers, physicians, and medical schools to better understand potential differences in use of SCAMs with patients.

Yes, I know!

Who cares what type of SCAMs US physicians recommended to their patients 7 years ago?

And who knows what the true figures would have looked like, if the ~40% who did not respond would have been included?

Such surveys usually tell us little of relevance. What is worse, they are misused for exploiting the ‘appeal to authority’ fallacy which hold that, if physicians recommend SCAMs, they must be fine. That this is a fallacy becomes obvious, if we remind ourselves that US physicians also are the main cause for the current opioid crisis in the US (if physicians recommend opioids, they must be fine???).

More importantly, I think, this survey also suggests the following:

  1. 73% of US physicians do NOT recommend chiropractic/osteopathic manipulations.
  2. 73% of them do NOT recommend herbal medicine.
  3. 74% of them do NOT recommend yoga.
  4. 77% of them do NOT recommend acupuncture.

I wonder why!

 

Carl Sagan was a giant in critical thinking and has inspired many, including myself. His book THE DEMON HAUTED WORLD is a classic. In it, he published his ‘BALONEY DETECTION KIT’. As it relates to SCAM and so much more that troubles us today, I today take the liberty of citing it here.

  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  6. Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  8. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

As I said, this is a good book; I warmly recommend it to you.

Leah Bracknell, started raising funds ~3 years ago for alternative cures of her stage 4 lung cancer. Bracknell who, after her acting career, had become a yoga teacher said at the time that, in the UK, she was given “a fairly brutal and bleak diagnosis, but one I am determined to challenge”. Her partner, Jez Hughes, who helped with the fund-raising said the money would be used for “immunotherapy and integrative medicine, which are seeing previously ‘incurable’ cancers going into complete remission”.

The team thus raised over £50 000 and went to Germany, a country that is well-known for its liberal stance on quackery. In Britain, there are just a few physicians who are devoted to this or that alternative medicine. In Germany, there are thousands of them. In addition, Germany has a healthcare profession called the ‘Heilpraktiker’, a poorly-regulated left-over from the Third Reich. A Heilpraktiker has not studied medicine, yet is legally permitted to make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims and treat many serious diseases, including cancer, with unproven therapies.

It was reported that Leah Bracknell went to the ‘Hallwang Private Oncology Clinic’, an institution which claims that “Healing-oriented and individualised medicine considers all aspects of lifestyle and not only relies on conventional treatments and recent cutting-edge developments in medicine, but also takes into account our experience in natural remedies and is open for alternative treatment options in order to work in synergy with conventional treatment strategies. We always try to be as natural as possible and as conventional as needed to achieve the best results. Integrative Health Concepts are successfully used in many diseases including malignant diseases, neurological disorders as well as in prevention and rehabilitation.” The SCAMs used there include homeopathy, micronutrients, natural supplements, whole body hyperthermia and ozone therapy.

The evidence does not support these or other alternative cancer ‘cures’. In fact, the very notion of an alternative cancer cure is nonsensical: if an alternative cancer therapy showed even the slightest shimmer of promise, it would get investigated and, if shown to work, become part of routine oncology. The suggestion that there are treatments out there that are effective, yet shunned by oncologists because they originate from nature or from some exotic tradition is insulting and utterly barmy.

Yet cancer patients can easily fall for such claims. They are understandably desperate and listen to anyone promissing a cure. Therefore, they all too easily believe in weird conspiracy theories of ‘Big Parma’, the evil ‘establishment’ etc. who allegedly suppress the news of an effective therapy, as it might threaten their profits. If they do fall for such lies, they not only lose pots of money but also their lives.

Last Wednesday, it was reported that Leah Bracknell had died of cancer.

Burning mouth syndrome (BMS) is a rare but potentially debilitating condition. So far, individualised homeopathy (iHOM) has not been evaluated or reported in any peer-reviewed journal as a treatment option. Here is a recently published case-report of iHOM for BMS.

At the Centre of Complementary Medicine in Bern, Switzerland, a 38-year-old patient with BMS and various co-morbidities was treated with iHOM between July 2014 and August 2018. The treatment involved prescription of individually selected homeopathic single remedies. During follow-up visits, outcome was assessed with two validated questionnaires concerning patient-reported outcomes. To assess whether the documented changes were likely to be associated with the homeopathic intervention, an assessment using the modified Naranjo criteria was performed.

Over an observation period of 4 years, an increasingly beneficial result from iHOM was noted for oral dysaesthesia and pains as well as for the concomitant symptoms.

The authors concluded that considering the multi-factorial aetiology of BMS, a therapeutic approach such as iHOM that integrates the totality of symptoms and complaints of a patient might be of value in cases where an association of psychological factors and the neuralgic complaints is likely.

BMS can have many causes. Some of the possible underlying conditions that can cause BMS include:

  • allergies
  • hormonal imbalances
  • acid reflux
  • infections in the mouth
  • various medications
  • nutritional deficiencies in iron or zinc
  • anxiety
  • diabetes

Threatemnt of BMS consists of identifying and eliminating the underlying cause. If no cause of BMS can be found, we speak of primary BMS. This condition can be difficult to treat; the following approaches to reduce the severity of the symptoms are being recommended:

  • avoiding acidic or spicy foods
  • reducing stress
  • avoiding any other known food triggers
  • exercising regularly
  • changing toothpaste
  • avoiding mouthwashes containing alcohol
  • sucking on ice chips
  • avoiding alcohol if it triggers symptoms
  • drinking cool liquids throughout the day
  • smoking cessation
  • eating a balanced diet
  • checking medications for potential triggers

The authors of the above case-report state that no efficient treatment of BMS is known. This does not seem to be entirely true. They also seem to think that iHOM benefitted their patient (the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy!). This too is more than doubtful. The natural history of BMS is such that, even if no effective therapy can be found, the condition often disappears after weeks or months.

The authors of the above case-report treated their patient for about 4 years. The devil’s advocate might assume that not only did iHOM contribute nothing to the patient’s improvement, but that it had a detrimental effect on BMS. The data provided are in full agreement with the notion that, without iHOM, the patient would have been symptom-free much quicker.

 

The field of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) has long been actively supported by many celebrities. In 2006, we tried to  study the phenomenon systematically. Here is our abstract:

OBJECTIVE:

To collect contemporary accounts of celebrity use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), to aid clinicians in determining which CAM treatments patients are likely to use.

DESIGN:

Articles published during 2005 and 2006 reporting celebrity use of CAM.

RESULTS:

38 celebrities were found to use a wide range of CAM interventions. Homeopathy, acupuncture and Ayurveda were the most popular modalities.

CONCLUSIONS:

There may be many reasons why consumers use CAM, and wanting to imitate their idols is one of them.

Since then, several celebs have sensed that SCAM offers an opportunity to make money, lots of money. Gwyneth Paltrow and others are earning millions by selling SCAM products to the gullible public. Now it seem that even those areas of SCAM are being targeted by celebs where the sale of SCAM products is not the main focus. This article explains:

Cameron Diaz is taking her passion for fashion health to new heights with her latest investment. The health advocate and Hollywood actress is the latest investor in Arizona-based acupuncture company Modern Acupuncture. Modern Acupuncture has been around for over three years and according to its CEO, Matt Hale, the group aims to provide affordable acupuncture across the United States.

Modern Acupuncture has 60 locations and hopes to double that in the upcoming year, and with an A-lister on the board, they seem to be on the right path…

The star’s investment in the alternative medicine space comes in partnership with Seth Rodsky and his firm Strand Equity, who clearly know what they’re doing. It’s the same firm that brought 50 Cent into Vitamin Water before most of us knew what Vitamin Water was. They also introduced Madonna into Vita Coco Coconut Water back in 2010. Now, Seth stated his team “reached out to Modern Acupuncture in late 2018 after identifying acupuncture as a healthcare and wellness service which we thought to be a large white space.” Bringing Cameron into the mix of investors marks an exciting time for Stand Equity, Cameron and Modern Acupuncture. The CEO explained that Cameron’s addition “amplifies it to an entire different ecosystem.”

MODERN ACUPUNCTURE advertise their services by pointing out that:

• The Mayo Clinic has adopted the practice of acupuncture nationwide.

John Hopkin’s also uses acupuncture for pain and supports many other conditions treated around the world.

• Acupuncture helps reduce use of pain killers in U.S. Army patients. Two-thirds of military hospitals and other treatment centers offer acupuncture.

Cleveland Clinic outlines new government advisory recommended non-addictive options before opioids.  Acupuncture was recommended as a first-line treatment in lower back pain by the American College of Physicians.

• A recent article in the Washington Post highlights Medicare now researching acupuncture for back pain.

• Acupuncture is used in hospitals around the world Acupuncture in hospitals.

___________________________________________________________

I find this most lamentable. It shows two things quite clearly. Firstly, the public is an easy victim of fallacious reasoning; the fact that an reputable institution offers acupuncture (or anything else) is no proof of its efficacy, it merely is an example for the sly use of the ‘appeal to authority’. Secondly, the harm caused by established institutions adopting dubious treatments is not confined to those institutions; its effects are being felt nationally and even internationally. This, I think, should make these institutions think twice before they continue with their short-sighted adoption of SCAM.

The journal NATURE has just published an excellent article by Andrew D. Oxman and an alliance of 24 leading scientists outlining the importance and key concepts of critical thinking in healthcare and beyond. The authors state that the Key Concepts for Informed Choices is not a checklist. It is a starting point. Although we have organized the ideas into three groups (claims, comparisons and choices), they can be used to develop learning resources that include any combination of these, presented in any order. We hope that the concepts will prove useful to people who help others to think critically about what evidence to trust and what to do, including those who teach critical thinking and those responsible for communicating research findings.

Here I take the liberty of citing a short excerpt from this paper:

CLAIMS:

Claims about effects should be supported by evidence from fair comparisons. Other claims are not necessarily wrong, but there is an insufficient basis for believing them.

Claims should not assume that interventions are safe, effective or certain.

  • Interventions can cause harm as well as benefits.
  • Large, dramatic effects are rare.
  • We can rarely, if ever, be certain about the effects of interventions.

Seemingly logical assumptions are not a sufficient basis for claims.

  • Beliefs alone about how interventions work are not reliable predictors of the presence or size of effects.
  • An outcome may be associated with an intervention but not caused by it.
  • More data are not necessarily better data.
  • The results of one study considered in isolation can be misleading.
  • Widely used interventions or those that have been used for decades are not necessarily beneficial or safe.
  • Interventions that are new or technologically impressive might not be better than available alternatives.
  • Increasing the amount of an intervention does not necessarily increase its benefits and might cause harm.

Trust in a source alone is not a sufficient basis for believing a claim.

  • Competing interests can result in misleading claims.
  • Personal experiences or anecdotes alone are an unreliable basis for most claims.
  • Opinions of experts, authorities, celebrities or other respected individuals are not solely a reliable basis for claims.
  • Peer review and publication by a journal do not guarantee that comparisons have been fair.

COMPARISONS:

Studies should make fair comparisons, designed to minimize the risk of systematic errors (biases) and random errors (the play of chance).

Comparisons of interventions should be fair.

  • Comparison groups and conditions should be as similar as possible.
  • Indirect comparisons of interventions across different studies can be misleading.
  • The people, groups or conditions being compared should be treated similarly, apart from the interventions being studied.
  • Outcomes should be assessed in the same way in the groups or conditions being compared.
  • Outcomes should be assessed using methods that have been shown to be reliable.
  • It is important to assess outcomes in all (or nearly all) the people or subjects in a study.
  • When random allocation is used, people’s or subjects’ outcomes should be counted in the group to which they were allocated.

Syntheses of studies should be reliable.

  • Reviews of studies comparing interventions should use systematic methods.
  • Failure to consider unpublished results of fair comparisons can bias estimates of effects.
  • Comparisons of interventions might be sensitive to underlying assumptions.

Descriptions should reflect the size of effects and the risk of being misled by chance.

  • Verbal descriptions of the size of effects alone can be misleading.
  • Small studies might be misleading.
  • Confidence intervals should be reported for estimates of effects.
  • Deeming results to be ‘statistically significant’ or ‘non-significant’ can be misleading.
  • Lack of evidence for a difference is not the same as evidence of no difference.

CHOICES:

What to do depends on judgements about the problem, the relevance (applicability or transferability) of evidence available and the balance of expected benefits, harm and costs.

Problems, goals and options should be defined.

  • The problem should be diagnosed or described correctly.
  • The goals and options should be acceptable and feasible.

Available evidence should be relevant.

  • Attention should focus on important, not surrogate, outcomes of interventions.
  • There should not be important differences between the people in studies and those to whom the study results will be applied.
  • The interventions compared should be similar to those of interest.
  • The circumstances in which the interventions were compared should be similar to those of interest.

Expected pros should outweigh cons.

  • Weigh the benefits and savings against the harm and costs of acting or not.
  • Consider how these are valued, their certainty and how they are distributed.
  • Important uncertainties about the effects of interventions should be reduced by further fair comparisons.

__________________________________________________________________________

END OF QUOTE

I have nothing to add to this, except perhaps to point out how very relevant all of this, of course, is for SCAM and to warmly recommend you study the full text of this brilliant paper.

One would be hard-pressed to find a form of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that is not being promoted for back pain: chiropractic, osteopathy, reflexology, naturopathy, homeopathy … you name it. Intriguingly, they all seem to generate similarly good – a realist would say bad – results. Faced with this large but largely ineffective options, one can hardly be surprised that enterprising innovators look for their own solutions. And few are more enterprising then this patient from Ireland who decided to devise his very own and highly unusual back pain therapy.

The 33 year old male with a history of back problems was seen complaining of severe, sudden onset lower back pain. He reported lifting a heavy steel object 3 days prior and his symptoms had progressed ever since. A physical exam of revealed an erythematous papule with a central focus on the medial aspect of his right upper limb.

The patient disclosed that he had – independent of any medical advice – intravenously injected his own semen as an innovative method to alleviate his back pain (a truly naturopathic approach, if there ever was one!). He also revealed that he had previously injected one monthly “dose” of semen for 18 consecutive months using a hypodermic needle purchased online.

On this occasion, the patient had tried to inject three “doses” of semen intra-vascularly and intra-muscularly. The erythema extended medially along his upper limb over the course of the following 24 hours.

It became indurated around the injection site where he had failed multiple attempts at injecting the semen thus causing an extravasation of his sperm into the soft tissues. Blood tests demonstrated a C-reactive protein of 150mg/L and white cell count of 13×109/L. The patient was immediately commenced on intravenous antimicrobial treatment after seeking advice regarding appropriate cover. A radiograph of the limb was obtained to exclude retained foreign body and it demonstrated a subcutaneous emphysema.

This patient’s back pain improved over the course of his inpatient stay. He opted to discharge himself without availing of an incision and drainage of the local collection.

Remarkable!

For me, the most fascinating aspect of this story is the fact that the patient had previously treated himself 18 (!) times before this little mishap occurred.

Why?, one may well ask. The answer has, I think, been provided by legions of proponents of diverse forms of SCAM: BECAUSE IT WORKED! PEOPLE ARE NOT STUPID; THEY DON’T CONTINUE TREATMENTS, IF THEY DON’T WORK.

So, either intravenous semen injections are an effective way to control back pain – in which case, I recommend that NICE look into it – or…

THERE IS SOMETHING BADLY WRONG WITH THE FAVOURITE ARGUMENT OF SCAM-ENTHUSIASTS, IT WORKED FOR ME AND THEREFORE IT IS EFFECTIVE AND SAFE.

(I know which explanation I favour)

Alternative medicine is an odd term (but it is probably as good or bad as any other term for it). It describes a wide range of treatments (and diagnostic techniques which I exclude from this discussion) that have hardly anything in common.

Hardly anything!

And that means there are a few common denominators. Here are 7 of them:

  1. The treatments have a long history and have thus stood the ‘test of time’.
  2. The treatments enjoy a lot of support.
  3. The treatments are natural and therefore safe.
  4. The treatments are holistic.
  5. The treatments tackle the root causes of the problem.
  6. The treatments are being suppressed by the establishment.
  7. The treatments are inexpensive and therefore value for money.

One only has to scratch the surface to discover that these common denominators of alternative medicine turn out to be unmitigated nonsense.

Let me explain:

The treatments have a long history and have thus stood the ‘test of time’.

It is true that most alternative therapies have a long history; but what does that really mean? In my view, it signals but one thing: when these therapies were invented, people had no idea how our body functions; they mostly had speculations, superstitions and myths. It follows, I think, that the treatments in question are built on speculations, superstitions and myths.

This might be a bit too harsh, I admit. But one thing is absolutely sure: a long history of usage is no proof of efficacy.

The treatments enjoy a lot of support.

Again, this is true. Alternative treatments are supported by many patients who swear by them, by thousands of clinicians who employ them as well as by royalty and other celebrities who make the headlines with them.

Such support is usually based on experience or belief. Neither are evidence; quite the opposite, remember: the three most dangerous words in medicine are ‘IN MY EXPERIENCE’. To be clear, experience and belief can fool us profoundly, and science is a tool to prevent us being misled by them.

The treatments are natural and therefore safe.

Here we have two fallacies moulded into one. Firstly, not all alternative therapies are natural; secondly, none is entirely safe.

There is nothing natural about diluting the Berlin Wall and selling it as a homeopathic remedy. There is nothing natural about forcing a spinal joint beyond its physiological range of motion and calling it spinal manipulation. There is nothing natural about sticking needles into the skin and claiming this re-balances our vital energies.

Acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, etc. are burdened with their fair share of adverse effects. But the real danger of alternative medicine is the harm done by neglecting effective therapies. Anyone who decides to forfeit conventional treatments for a serious condition, and uses alternative therapies instead, runs the risk of shortening their lives.

The treatments are holistic.

Alternative therapists try very hard to sell their treatments as holistic. This sounds good and must be an excellent marketing gimmick. Alas, it is not true.

There is nothing less holistic than seeing subluxations, yin/yang imbalances, auto-intoxications, energy blockages, etc. as the cause of all illness. Holism is at the heart of all good healthcare; the attempt by alternative practitioners to hijack it is merely a transparent attempt to boost their business.

The treatments tackle the root causes of the problem.

Alternative therapists claim that they can identify the root causes of all conditions and thus treat them more effectively than conventional clinicians who merely treat their symptoms. Nothing could be further from the truth. Conventional medicine has been so spectacularly successful not least because we always aim at identifying the cause that underlie a symptom and, whenever possible, treat that cause (often in addition to treating symptoms). Alternative practitioners may well delude themselves that energy imbalances, subluxations, chi-blockages etc. are root causes, but there simply is no evidence to support their deluded claims.

The treatments are being suppressed by the establishment.

The feeling of paranoia seems endemic in alternative medicine. Many practitioners are so affected by it that they believe everyone who doubts their implausible notions and misconceptions is out to get them. Big Pharma’ or whoever else they feel prosecuted by are more likely to smile at such wild conspiracy theories than to fear for their profit margins. And whenever ‘Big Pharma’ does smell a fast buck, they do not hesitate to jump on the alternative band-waggon joining them in ripping off the public by flogging dubious supplements, homeopathics, essential oils, vitamins, flower remedies, detox-remedies, etc.

The treatments are inexpensive and therefore value for money.

It is probably true that the average cost of a homeopathic remedy, an acupuncture treatment or an aromatherapy session costs less than the average conventional treatment. However, to conclude from it that alternative therapies are value for money is wrong. To be of real value, a treatment needs to generate more good than harm; but very few alternative treatments fulfil this criterion. To use a blunt analogy, if someone offers you a used car, it may well be inexpensive – if, however, it does not run and is beyond repair, it cannot be value for money.

As I already stated: alternative medicine is so diverse that its various branches are almost entirely unrelated, and the few common denominators of alternative medicine that do exist are unmitigated nonsense.

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