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

fallacy

1 2 3 8

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.

____________________________________________________________________

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?

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:

  1. Homeopathy has millions of satisfied customers in Germany.
  2. The campaign aims at defending customers’ choice.
  3. The campaign declares to present the facts realistically.
  4. 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:

  1. The ‘appeal to popularity’ is a classical fallacy.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.”

Here comes the inevitable Dr Dixon (the ‘pyromaniac in a field of straw-men’) with the oldest chestnut in town. But repeating a nonsense endlessly does not render it sensible.

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???

Really?

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.

Daaaahhhhhhh!

 

“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:

F SThomas‏ @spenthomf

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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Consistency (reproducibility): Consistent findings observed by different persons in different places with different samples strengthens the likelihood of an effect.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. Plausibility: A plausible mechanism between cause and effect is helpful (but Hill noted that knowledge of the mechanism is limited by current knowledge).
  7. 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”.
  8. Experiment: “Occasionally it is possible to appeal to experimental evidence”.
  9. 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.

1 2 3 8
Recent Comments

Note that comments can be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted but you must tick the box: “Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.”


Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.

Categories