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

fallacy

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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.

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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.

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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.

They say that minds are like parachutes – they function only when open. Having an open mind means being receptive to new and different ideas or the opinions of others.

I am regularly accused of lacking this quality. Most recently, an acupuncturist questioned whether acupuncture-sceptics, and I in particular, have an open mind. Subsequently, an interesting dialogue ensued:

___________________________________________________________

Tom Kennedy on Wednesday 01 August 2018 at 19:27

@Rich It sounds to me as if you are at least partly open-minded, and take a more genuinely scientific approach than most here – i.e. rather than dismissing something with a lot of intriguing evidence behind it (even if much of this evidence is still hotly debated) mainly on the grounds that it ‘sounds a bit silly’, you understand that it’s possible to look at something like acupuncture objectively without being put off by the strange terminology associated with it. I strongly urge you to consult various other outlets as well as this one before coming to any final judgement. http://www.evidencebasedacupuncture.org/ for example is run by intelligent people genuinely trying to present the facts as they see them. Yes, they have an ‘agenda’ in that they are acupuncturists, but I can assure you, having had detailed discussions with some of them, that they are motivated by the urge to see acupuncture help more people rather than anything sinister, and they are trying to present an honest appraisal of the evidence. No doubt virtually everyone here will dismiss everything there with (or without) a cursory glance, but perhaps you won’t fall into that category. I hope you find something of interest there, and come to a balanced opinion.

the EVIDENCEBASEDACUPUNCTURE site you recommend quotes the Vickers meta-analysis thus:
“A meta-analysis of 17,922 patients from randomized trials concluded, “Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo.”
Pity that they forgot a bit. The full conclusion reads:
“Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo. However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture.”
AND YOU TRY TO LECTURE US ABOUT AN OPEN MIND?

@Edzard I’m not sure I understand your point. ‘However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture.’ Perhaps the full conclusion should always be quoted, but I don’t think that addendum changes the context significantly. Acupuncture has been shown to be more than a placebo in a large meta-analysis (when compared to arguably active sham controls). The authors put it well I think, in the ‘Interpretation’ section:

‘Our finding that acupuncture has effects over and above sham acupuncture is therefore of major importance for clinical practice. Even though on average these effects are small, the clinical decision made by doctors and patients is not between true and sham acupuncture, but between a referral to an acupuncturist or avoiding such a referral. The total effects of acupuncture, as experienced by the patient in routine practice, include both the specific effects associated with correct needle insertion according to acupuncture theory, non-specific physiologic effects of needling, and non-specific psychological (placebo) effects related to the patient’s belief that treatment will be effective.’

Compare this to Richard’s comment here, for example: ‘Of course the effects of ‘acupuncture’ (if any) are due to placebo responses (and perhaps nocebo responses in some cases). What else?’. And your post tile includes the line ‘the effects of acupuncture are due to placebo’. These are the kinds of comment that to me seem closed-minded in the face of some significant evidence.

edzard on Thursday 02 August 2018 at 12:46

“Perhaps the full conclusion should always be quoted…”

YES, IF NOT, IT’S CALLED ‘BEING ECONOMICAL WITH THE TRUTH’

“…I don’t think that addendum changes the context significantly.”
IT’S NOT AN ADDENDUM, BUT PART OF THE CONCLUSION; AND YOU ARE WRONG, FOR ME, IT CHANGES A LOT.
“…your post tile includes the line ‘the effects of acupuncture are due to placebo’.”
BECAUSE THIS IS WHAT THE PAPER DISCUSSED IN THAT PARTICULAR POST IMPLIED.

I think you need a new keyboard – the caps key seems to be stuck.

‘IT’S CALLED ‘BEING ECONOMICAL WITH THE TRUTH’’

The title of this post is: ‘Yet another confirmation: the effects of acupuncture are due to placebo’. That’s also being economical with the truth I think. You argue ‘BECAUSE THIS IS WHAT THE PAPER DISCUSSED IN THAT PARTICULAR POST IMPLIED’, but is it? The authors state ‘Future studies are needed to confirm or refute any effects of acupuncture in acute stroke’, and that would have been a much more balanced headline. You clearly imply here that it has been CONFIRMED that the effects of acupuncture are due to placebo, and that this trial is further confirmation. This is misleading at best. Yes, you add in brackets ‘(for acute stroke)’ at the end of the post, but why not in the title, unless you want to give the impression this is true for acupuncture in general

Edzard on Thursday 02 August 2018 at 14:09

my post is about critical evaluation of the published literature.
and this is what follows from a critical evaluation of this particular article.
I am not surprised that you cannot follow this line of reasoning.
could it be that the lack of an open mind is not my but your problem

Tom Kennedy on Thursday 02 August 2018 at 14:43

‘could it be that the lack of an open mind is not my but your problem?’

Who knows, maybe the problem is both of ours? I’m open to all possibilities!

VERY GOOD!
ok, let’s have a look.
you 1st: learnt acupuncture [a therapy that relies on a 2000 year old dogma], never published anything negative about it, never used any other therapeutic modality, even treated my own daughter with acupuncture when she suffered from infant colic, earn my livelihood by doing acupuncture.
[I MIGHT BE WRONG HERE, AS I DON’T KNOW ALL THAT MUCH ABOUT YOU, SO PLEASE CORRECT ME] me next: studied acupuncture during my time in med school, used it occasionally, learnt to use dozens of other therapeutic modalities, published lots about acupuncture based on the current evidence [this means that some conclusions – even of my Cochrane reviews – were positive but have since changed], worked with acupuncturists from across the globe, published one book about acupuncture together with several acupuncture fans, now dedicate my time to the critical analysis of the literature and bogus claims, have no conflicts of interest.
[IN CASE YOU KNOW MORE RELEVANT THINGS ABOUT ME, PLEASE ADD]

@Edzard Your summaries seem to be more or less accurate. However, a) I wouldn’t agree with your use of the term ‘dogma’; b) I haven’t published any scientific papers, but I’ve acknowledged various problems in the acupuncture field through informal pieces; c) I’ve used other CAM modalities, and I’ve directly or indirectly experienced many conventional modalities; d) I only earn part of my livelihood by doing acupuncture. Yes, my background makes it more likely that I’ll be biased in favour of acupuncture. But your credentials in no way guarantee open-mindedness on the subject, and personally I don’t see that displayed often on this blog. It still makes for interesting and stimulating reading though.

what problems in the acupuncture field have you acknowledged through informal pieces?
can you provide links?
I want to get a feel for the openness of your mind.
“…your credentials in no way guarantee open-mindedness on the subject, and personally I don’t see that displayed often on this blog.”
1) you seem to forget that blog-posts are not scientific papers, not even close.
2) you also forget that my blog is dedicated to the CRITICAL assessment of alt med.
finally, what would make you think that someone has an open mind towards acupuncture, if not the fact that someone has a track record of publishing positive conclusions about it when the evidence allows?
remember: an open mind should not be so open that your brain falls out!

Tom Kennedy on Friday 03 August 2018 at 11:20

Here’s one example: https://www.tomtheacupuncturist.com/blog/2017/2/24/does-acupuncture-really-work

‘what would make you think that someone has an open mind towards acupuncture, if not the fact that someone has a track record of publishing positive conclusions about it when the evidence allows?’

I think there’s plenty of evidence that allows for positive conclusions about acupuncture, but you don’t report these. I understand the slant of this blog, but I’d say it comes across as ‘negative assessment’ rather than ‘critical assessment’. Perhaps you’ll argue that your critical assessment has led you to a negative assessment? I’ll just have to disagree that that’s a fair and open-minded summary of the evidence.

Out of interest, can I ask what your acupuncture training involved (hours, theory, clinic time etc.)?

I am sorry to say that I see no critical evaluation in the post you linked to.
” I’d say it comes across as ‘negative assessment’ rather than ‘critical assessment’.
have you noticed that criticism is often experienced as negative to the person(s) it is aimed at?

Tom Kennedy on Friday 03 August 2018 at 12:55

‘I am sorry to say that I see no critical evaluation in the post you linked to’

I’ll just have to live with that. I feel as though it acknowledges some of the problems in the acupuncture world, in an attempt at balance. I don’t feel your posts aim for balance, but as you said, a blog isn’t a scientific paper so it’s your prerogative to skew things as you see fit

Edzard on Friday 03 August 2018 at 13:18

it seems to me that the ‘screwing things as you see fit’ is your game.

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This exchange shows how easily I can be provoked to get stroppy and even impolite – I do apologise.

But it also made me wonder: how can anyone be sure to have an open mind?

And how can we decide that a person has a closed mind?

We probably all think we are open minded, but are we correct?

I am not at all sure that I know the answer. It obviously depends a lot on the subject. There are subjects where one hardly needs to keep an open mind and some where it might be advisable to have a closed mind:

  • the notion that the earth is flat,
  • flying carpets,
  • iridology,
  • reflexology,
  • chiropractic subluxation,
  • the vital force,
  • detox,
  • homeopathy.

No doubt, there will be people who even disagree with this short list.

Something that intrigues me – and I am here main ly talking about alternative medicine – is the fact that I often get praised by people who say, “I do appreciate your critical stance on therapy X, but on my treatment Y you are clearly biased and unfairly negative!” To me, it is an indication of a closed mind, if criticism is applauded as long as it does not tackle someone’s own belief system.

On the subject of homeopathy, Prof M Baum and I once published a paper entitled ‘Should we maintain an open mind about homeopathy?’ Its introduction explains the problem quite well, I think:

Once upon a time, doctors had little patience with the claims made for alternative medicines. In recent years the climate has changed dramatically. It is now politically correct to have an open mind about such matters; “the patient knows best” and “it worked for me” seem to be the new mantras. Although this may be a reasonable approach to some of the more plausible aspects of alternative medicine, such as herbal medicine or physical therapies that require manipulation, we believe it cannot apply across the board. Some of these alternatives are based on obsolete or metaphysical concepts of human biology and physiology that have to be described as absurd with proponents who will not subject their interventions to scientific scrutiny or if they do, and are found wanting, suggest that the mere fact of critical evaluation is sufficient to chase the healing process away. These individuals have a conflict of interest more powerful than the requirement for scientific integrity and yet defend themselves by claiming that those wanting to carry out the trials are in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry and are part of a conspiracy to deny their patients tried and tested palliatives….

END OF QUOTE

And this leads me to try to define 10 criteria indicative for an open mind.

  1. to be free of conflicts of interest,
  2. integrity,
  3. honesty,
  4. to resist the temptation of applying double standards,
  5. to have a track record of having changed one’s views in line with the evidence,
  6. to not cling to overt absurdities,
  7. to reject conspiracy theories,
  8. to be able to engage in a meaningful dialogue with people who have different views,
  9. to avoid fallacious thinking,
  10. to be willing to learn more on the subject in question.

I would be truly interested to hear, if you have further criteria, or indeed any other thoughts on the subject.

Vis a vis the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, why are there so many clinicians (doctors as well as lay practitioners) who still believe that homeopathy is working? And why are there so many patients who still believe that homeopathy is working?

These are questions that puzzle me quite a bit.

Of course, there is no simple, single answer; there are probably dozens. But one reason must be that there are only three possible outcomes after homeopathic treatments, all of which are favourable for homeopathy (at least in the interpretation of proponents of homeopathy). Seen in this light, there simply is no better therapy!

Let me explain:

If a patient consults a homeopath who prescribes a highly diluted homeopathic remedy, she might subsequently:

  1. get better,
  2. get worse,
  3. or experience no change at all.

Analysing these three possibilities, we quickly see that, from the point of view of a convinced homeopath, all are a proof for homeopathy’s effectiveness, and none suggests that the scientific evidence is correct in claiming that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are pure placebos.

SCENARIO 1

In this situation, it is easy to assume that the remedy was the cause for the clinical improvement. Most clinicians of any discipline fall into this trap, and most patients follow them willingly. Yet, we all know that a temporal relationship is not the same as a causal one (the crowing of a cock before dawn is not the cause of the sun rising). Of course, it is conceivable that the treatment was the cause, but there are several other possibilities as well; just think of the placebo effect, regression towards the mean, and the natural history of the disease. In our case, these non-specific effects are most certainly the cause of our patient’s improvement.

SCENARIO 2

Most clinicians in this situation would start wondering whether they have employed the correct therapy for this patient’s condition – not so the homeopath! He would triumphantly exclaim: “excellent, you are experiencing a ‘homeopathic aggravation’. This is a sure sign that I have given you the optimal remedy. Things will get better soon.” A homeopathic aggravation occurs, according to homeopathic logic, because homeopathy follows the ‘like cures like’ principle. The homeopath prescribes the remedy that would normally cause the symptoms from which his patient is suffering. This means it must also cause these symptoms in every patient. Usually these aggravations are not strong enough to be noticed, but when they are, it is interpreted by homeopaths as a triumph of homeopathy.

SCENARIO 3

In this situation, the homeopath has several options. He can claim “but without my remedy you would be much worse by now. The fact that you are not, shows how very effective homeopathy really is. A more humble homeopaths might explain that the optimal remedy is not always easy to find straight away, and he would therefore proceed in prescribing another one. In both cases, the patient is kept paying for more and homeopathy is presented as an effective therapy.

These three scenarios clearly show that there is no conceivable outcome where any homeopathy-fan would need to consider that scientists are correct in stating that homeopathy is ineffective. And this is one of the reasons why the myth of homeopathy’s effectiveness persists.

Hold on … the patient might be dead!

Yes, that is a rather unfortunate situation for any clinician – except for a homeopath, of course. He would simply point out that the patient must have forgotten to take her medicine. A conventional practitioner might get in trouble, if he tried that excuse; one could easily measure blood levels of the prescribed drug and verify the claim. Not so in homeopathy! Because they contain not a single active molecule, homeopathic remedies are undetectable!

We can easily see that there is no better treatment than homeopathy – at least for the homeopath!

 

 

In the comment section of a recent post, we saw a classic example of the type of reasoning that many alternative practitioners seem to like. In order to offer a service to other practitioners, I will elaborate on it here. The reasoning roughly follows these simple 10 steps:

  1. My treatment works.
  2. My treatment requires a lot of skills, training and experience.
  3. Most people fail to appreciate how subtle my treatment really is.
  4. In fact, only few practitioners manage do it the way it has to be done.
  5. The negative trials of my treatment are false-negative because they were conducted by incompetent practitioners.
  6. In any case, for a whole range of reasons, my treatment cannot be pressed into the straight jacket of a clinical trial.
  7. My treatment is therefore not supported by the type of evidence people who don’t understand it insist upon.
  8. Therefore, we have to rely on the best evidence that is available to date.
  9. And that clearly is the experience of therapists and patients.
  10. So, the best evidence unquestionably confirms that my treatment works.

The case I mentioned above was that of an acupuncturist defending his beloved acupuncture. To a degree, the argument put forward by him sounded (to fellow acupuncturists) reasonable. On closer inspection, however, they seem far less so, perhaps even fallacious. If you are an acupuncturist, you will, of course, disagree with me. Therefore, I invite all acupuncturists to imagine a homeopath arguing in that way (which they often do). Would you still find the line of arguments reasonable?

And what, if you are a homeopath? Then I invite you to imagine that a crystal therapist argues in that way (which they often do). Would you still find the line of arguments reasonable?

And what, if you are a crystal therapist? …

I am not getting anywhere, am I?

To make my point, it might perhaps be best, if I created my very own therapy!

Here we go: it’s called ENERGY PRESERVATION THERAPY (EPT).

I have discovered, after studying ancient texts from various cultures, that the vital energy of our closest deceased relatives can be transferred by consuming their carbon molecules. The most hygienic way to achieve this is to have our deceased relatives cremated and consume their ashes afterwards. The cremation, storage of the ashes, as well as their preparation and regular consumption all have to be highly individualised, of course. But I am certain that this is the only way to preserve their vital force and transfer it to a living relative. The benefits of this treatment are instantly visible.

As it happens, I run special three-year (6 years part-time) courses at the RSM in London to teach other clinicians how exactly to do this. And I should warn you: they are neither cheap nor easy; we are talking of very skilled stuff here.

What! You doubt that my treatment works?

Doubt no more!

Here are 10 convincing arguments for it:

  1. EPT works, I have 10 years of experience and seen hundreds of cases.
  2. EPT requires a lot of skills, training and experience.
  3. Most people fail to appreciate how subtle EPT really is.
  4. In fact, only few practitioners manage do EPT the way it has to be done.
  5. The negative trials of EPT are false-negative because they were conducted by incompetent practitioners.
  6. In any case, for a whole range of reasons, EPT cannot be pressed into the straight jacket of a clinical trial.
  7. EPT is therefore not supported by the type of evidence people who don’t understand it insist upon.
  8. Therefore, we have to rely on the best evidence that is available to date.
  9. And that clearly is the experience of therapists and patients.
  10. So, the best evidence unquestionably confirms that EPT works.

Convinced?

No?

You do surprise me!

Why then are you convinced of the effectiveness of acupuncture, homeopathy, etc?

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