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

gullible consumer

1 2 3 8

For years, Margaret McCartney, a GP from Scotland, wrote a weekly column in the BMJ. It was invariably well-worth reading. Recently, she regrettably ended it by publishing her last article entitled  A summary of four and a half years of columns in one column. In it, she makes 36 short points. They are all poignant, but the one that made me think most (probably because it is relevant to my work and this blog) reads as follows:

Many people seek to make money from those who don’t understand science. Doctors should call out bollocksology when they see it.

On this blog, I have often discussed people who make money from consumers and patients who are unable to detect the quackery they are being sold. No doubt, the most famous case of me doing this was when, in 2009, I criticised Prince Charles and his ‘Dodgy Originals Detox Tincture’. It made many headlines; the BBC, for instance, reported:

Edzard Ernst, the UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, said the Duchy Originals detox tincture was based on “outright quackery”.

There was no scientific evidence to show that detox products work, he said.

Duchy Originals says the product is a “natural aid to digestion and supports the body’s elimination processes”.

But Professor Ernst of Peninsula Medical School said Prince Charles and his advisers appeared to be deliberately ignoring science, preferring “to rely on ‘make-believe’ and superstition”.

He added: “Prince Charles thus financially exploits a gullible public in a time of financial hardship.”

Marketed as Duchy Herbals’ Detox Tincture, the artichoke and dandelion mix is described as “a food supplement to help eliminate toxins and aid digestion”.

It costs £10 for a 50ml bottle…

At the time, I got a right blocking from my dean, Prof John Tooke, for my audacity. As far as I could see, there was almost no support from the UK medical profession. Since then, the exploitation of the public by quacks has not diminished; on the contrary, I have the feeling that it is thriving. And are doctors calling out bollocksology left right and centre? No, they are not!

Of course, some do occasionally raise their voices (and some do it even regularly). But mostly, it is the group of non-medical sceptics who open their mouths and try their best to prevent harm. Yet, I wholly agree with my friend Margret: doctors have a responsibility and must do more.

And why don’t they?

I think, there are several reasons for their inactivity:

  • doctors are frightfully busy,
  • doctors often don’t know how much bollocksology is out there,
  • doctors don’t (want to) see how dangerous much of this bollocksology is,
  • doctors fail to realise that it would be their ethical responsibility to speak out against bollocksology,
  • some doctors do not seem to understand science either,
  • some doctors are active bollocksologists themselves,
  • some doctors simply don’t care.

This clearly is a depressing state of affairs! But, at the same time, it also is a cheerful occasion for me to thank all those doctors who are the laudable exceptions, who do care, who do think critically, who see their ethical responsibility, and who do something about the never-ending flood of bollocksology endangering their patients’ health and wealth.

Just when I thought I had seen all homeopathy has to offer, here comes this:

THE BRISTOL STOOL CHART AND CORRESPONDING HOMEOPATHIC REMEDIES!

“With mere examination of stool appearance, Homoeopathic remedy can easily be selected….”

The chart was, according to Wikipedia, developed and proposed for the first time by Dr. Stephen Lewis and Dr. Ken Heaton at the University Department of Medicine, Bristol Royal Infirmary, it was suggested by the authors as a clinical assessment tool in 1997 in the journal Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology after a previous prospective study, conducted in 1992 on a sample of the population (838 men and 1,059 women), had shown an unexpected prevalence of defecation disorders related to the shape and type of stool. The authors of the former paper concluded that the form of the stool is a useful surrogate measure of colon transit time. That conclusion has since been challenged as having limited validity for Types 1 and 2; however, it remains in use as a research tool to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments for various diseases of the bowel, as well as a clinical communication aid.

Nobody had meant this chart to get in any way related to homeopathy. I congratulate Dr Sharma to have spotted the connection. Thanks to him, we all can now easily find which homeopathic remedies are the ones we need. The writing is not on the wall, it is in the loo! I think someone should inform the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm – this surely is Nobel Prize material!!!

It’s been often said that we live in the age of information.  Everyone can get tons of it at the click of a button. This is undoubtedly true. Sadly, it also means that we are exposed to tons of misinformation, and sometimes it seems to me that we now live in THE AGE OF MISINFORMATION.

Here I will explain the consequences of this phenomenon on two examples that, at first glance, seem to have nothing in common at all (other than being close to my heart):

  • Homeopathy
  • Brexit

With homeopathy, the public are confronted by a steady flood of misinformation from the powerful homeopathy lobby who tell us quite incredible untruths about it:

  • Homeopathy is effective
  • Homeopathy is harmless
  • Homeopathy is natural
  • Homeopathy is holistic
  • Homeopathy is supported by many of the brightest people
  • Homeopathy is an important contribution to public health
  • Homeopathy prevents epidemics
  • Homeopathy works through quantum effects
  • Homeopathy is nano-medicine
  • Homeopathy is energy medicine
  • Homeopathy works for infants
  • Homeopathy works in animals
  • Homeopathy works for plants
  • Homeopathy is the victim of a propaganda campaign against it

Those who put out this multi-level misinformation pretend that they inform the public. Of course, the public must be informed – how else could they possibly make informed choices? (If this important aim requires a bit of cheating here and there, so be it!)

And the public reacts as directed: they buy homeopathic preparations in droves. The result is that the promoters of homeopathy can claim that THE PUBLIC IS VOTING WITH THEIR FEET! The people have decided, they say, homeopathy is a good thing!

_______________________________________________________________

With Brexit, the public is confronted by a steady flood of misinformation from the powerful Brexit lobby who tell us quite incredible untruths about it:

  • Brexit is going to give us our country back
  • Brexit is good for the economy
  • Brexit will mean more money for the NHS
  • Brexit will be easy
  • Brexit will allow us to trade with the rest of the world
  • Brexit will keep foreigners out
  • Brexit is going to create jobs
  • Brexit is good for our industry
  • Brexit is good for farmers
  • Brexit is good for the environment
  • Brexit will free us from the shackles of the EU
  • Brexit will strengthen our alliance with the US

Those who put out this multi-level misinformation pretend that they inform the public. Of course, the public must be informed – how else could they possibly make informed choices? (If this important aim requires a bit of cheating here and there, so be it!)

And the public reacts as directed: they buy into the lies of the Brexiteers in droves. The result is that the promoters of Brexit can claim that THE PUBLIC HAS VOTED WITH THEIR FEET! The people have decided, they say, Brexit is a good thing!

_____________________________________________________________

Yes, I know, this is a bit simplistic. But the point I am trying to make is surely valid: misinformation not only leads to wrong and often dangerous decision, it is also the way charlatans try to fool us with their circular arguments and justify their blatant lies.

About 7 months ago, I contacted a German journalist who I knew and trusted to tell her about the incredible quackery-promotion performed by Germany’s institutes of adult education, the ‘Volkshochschulen‘ (VHSs). After I had been invited to give a few lectures for the VHSs, I had conducted some preliminary research and realised that, nationwide, they run hundreds of courses promoting the worst types of quackery.

My journalist friend, Veronika Hackenbroch, who works for DER SPIEGEL liked the idea of conducting an in-depth investigation into the matter. What it revealed became the centre-piece of a theme issue published today. Here is its title page:

In a nutshell, the key finding is that every 5th course offered by the VHSs in the area of healthcare is steeped in woo. Considering that their funding comes mainly from the public purse, this is intolerable. When asked why they offer so much quackery, some heads of local VHSs said that they are not competent to evaluate the science; they simply assume that, if doctors in Germany use these treatments – specifically homeopathy – and if the public wants to learn about them, they have to offer them.

When I first heard this argument, it made me speechless. It has some undeniable logic behind it. The heads of VHSs are not medical experts. Thus, they cannot do their own research or evaluations. To just follow what the doctors must therefore seem reasonable to them.

So, where is the crux of the problem?

I think, it lies in the vicious circle that inevitable unfolds such a situation:

  • some people like homeopathy (or other bogus treatments),
  • therefore, they ask their doctors to provide it,
  • therefore, some doctors offer it,
  • therefore, the VHSs feel they can promote if,
  • therefore, people like homeopathy (or other bogus treatments).

This circle has no beginning and no end; it just turns and turns. And it is difficult to stop, not least because it is driven by the relentless promotion of interested parties, such as the manufacturers of woo. Yet, if we want to make progress and are serious about improving healthcare, we have to try stopping it!

But how?

Through providing information and fighting misinformation (of course, some rules and regulations would help as well).

That’s exactly what we tried to do – thank you Veronika Hackenbroch!

Kinesiology tape KT is fashionable, it seems. Gullible consumers proudly wear it as decorative ornaments to attract attention and show how very cool they are.

Am I too cynical?

Perhaps.

But does KT really do anything more?

A new trial might tell us.

The aim of this study was to investigate whether adding kinesiology tape (KT) to spinal manipulation (SM) can provide any extra effect in athletes with chronic non-specific low back pain (CNLBP).

Forty-two athletes (21males, 21females) with CNLBP were randomized into two groups of SM (n = 21) and SM plus KT (n = 21). Pain intensity, functional disability level and trunk flexor-extensor muscles endurance were assessed by Numerical Rating Scale (NRS), Oswestry pain and disability index (ODI), McQuade test, and unsupported trunk holding test, respectively. The tests were done before and immediately, one day, one week, and one month after the interventions and compared between the two groups.

After treatments, pain intensity and disability level decreased and endurance of trunk flexor-extensor muscles increased significantly in both groups. Repeated measures analysis, however, showed that there was no significant difference between the groups in any of the evaluations.

The authors, physiotherapists from Iran, concluded that the findings of the present study showed that adding KT to SM does not appear to have a significant extra effect on pain, disability and muscle endurance in athletes with CNLBP. However, more studies are needed to examine the therapeutic effects of KT in treating these patients.

Regular readers of my blog will be able to predict what I have to say about this study design: A+B versus B is not a meaningful test of anything. I used to claim that it cannot possibly produce a negative result – and yet, here it seems to have done exactly that!

How come?

The way I see it, there are two possibilities to explain this:

  • the KT has a mildly negative effect on CNLBP; thus the expected positive placebo-effect was neutralised to result in a null-effect overall;
  • the study was under-powered such that the true inter-group difference could not manifest itself.

I think the second possibility is more likely, but it does really not matter at all. Because the only lesson we can learn from this trial is this: inadequate study designs will  hardly ever generate anything worthwhile.

And this is, I think, a lesson that would be valuable for many researchers.

_______________________________________________________________________

Reference

2018 Apr;22(2):540-545. doi: 10.1016/j.jbmt.2017.07.008. Epub 2017 Jul 26.

Comparing spinal manipulation with and without Kinesio Taping® in the treatment of chronic low back pain.

 

How often do we hear this sentence: “I know, because I have done my research!” I don’t doubt that most people who make this claim believe it to be true.

But is it?

What many mean by saying, “I know, because I have done my research”, is that they went on the internet and looked at a few websites. Others might have been more thorough and read books and perhaps even some original papers. But does that justify their claim, “I know, because I have done my research”?

The thing is, there is research and there is research.

The dictionary defines research as “The systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.” This definition is helpful because it mentions several issues which, I believe, are important.

Research should be:

  • systematic,
  • an investigation,
  • establish facts,
  • reach new conclusions.

To me, this indicates that none of the following can be truly called research:

  • looking at a few randomly chosen papers,
  • merely reading material published by others,
  • uncritically adopting the views of others,
  • repeating the conclusions of others.

Obviously, I am being very harsh and uncompromising here. Not many people could, according to these principles, truthfully claim to have done research in alternative medicine. Most people in this realm do not fulfil any of those criteria.

As I said, there is research and research – research that meets the above criteria, and the type of research most people mean when they claim: “I know, because I have done my research.”

Personally, I don’t mind that the term ‘research’ is used in more than one way:

  • there is research meeting the criteria of the strict definition
  • and there is a common usage of the word.

But what I do mind, however, is when the real research is claimed to be as relevant and reliable as the common usage of the term. This would be a classical false equivalence, akin to putting experts on a par with pseudo-experts, to believing that facts are no different from fantasy, or to assume that truth is akin to post-truth.

Sadly, in the realm of alternative medicine (and alarmingly, in other areas as well), this is exactly what has happened since quite some time. No doubt, this might be one reason why many consumers are so confused and often make wrong, sometimes dangerous therapeutic decisions. And this is why I think it is important to point out the difference between research and research.

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!

 

 

I am sure we have all seen these colourful tapes that nowadays decorate the bodies of many of our sporting heroes. The tape is supposed to be good for athletic performance – but not just that, it is also promoted for all sorts of health conditions, for instance, low back pain.

But is it worth the considerable investment?

This systematic review investigated the effectiveness of ‘Kinesiology Tape’ (KT) for patients with non-specific low back pain.

The researchers included all randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in adults with chronic non-specific low back pain that compared KT to no intervention or placebo as well as RCTs that compared KT combined with exercise against exercise alone. The methodological quality and statistical reporting of the eligible trials were measured by the 11-item PEDro scale. The quality of the evidence was assessed using the GRADE classification. Pain intensity and disability were the primary outcomes. Whenever possible, the data were pooled through meta-analysis.

Eleven RCTs were included in this systematic review. Two clinical trials compared KT to no intervention at the short-term follow-up. Four studies compared KT to placebo at short-term follow-up and two trials compared KT to placebo at intermediate-term follow-up. Five trials compared KT combined with exercises or electrotherapy to exercises or spinal manipulation alone. No statistically significant difference was found for most comparisons.

The authors concluded that very low to moderate quality evidence shows that KT was no better than any other intervention for most the outcomes assessed in patients with chronic non-specific low back pain. We found no evidence to support the use of KT in clinical practice for patients with chronic non-specific low back pain.

So, is KT worth the often considerable investment for patients with back trouble?

Or is the current popularity of KT more of a triumph of clever marketing over scientific evidence?

I let you answer this one.

I stumbled over an article entitled ‘The myths of homeopathy: Resounding answers‘. I thought it was great fun, so much so, that I copied it below – not just once but twice. The second time I took the liberty of replacing the little porkies told by homeopaths with the truth.

THE ORIGINAL

Homeopathic medicines are not placebos! Little “pellets” of sugar cannot have an effect!

Of course, the sugar in homeopathic pellets doesn’t have any effect. This is why we also have tablets and drops that contain homeopathic active substances.

The sugar is simply a medium for these active substances. The important element is what has been added to the sugar – the active ingredient!

As homeopathic remedies have very slow action, they cannot be used to treat acute illnesses!

This is incorrect. You can successfully use homeopathy in acute circumstances such as infections, fevers and colds.

Homeopathy seems to be a kind of magic!

Homeopathy is not magic! Homeopathy is a field of medicine that has the capacity to heal, but if course, it has its limits, just like any other medicine, including conventional medicine.

To give you a clear example – it’s unlikely that homeopathy will replace a surgical intervention.

During homeopathic treatment you have to follow a strict diet!

Well, it’s not such a bad thing…but of course, you need to eat healthily and avoid smoking, drinking alcohol and coffee.

In some cases you can’t eat onion or garlic as they contain sulphur, which is a homeopathic remedy in itself. All of these things have little to do with a strict diet.

Diabetes sufferers can’t use homeopathic remedies!

This is not true. The amount of sugar in the pellets is negligible. These homeopathic pellets could even be taken on a daily basis. The foods we eat contain much more sugar, even those that are especially for diabetics.

MY CORRECTED VERSION

Homeopathic medicines are not placebos! Little “pellets” of sugar cannot have an effect!

Of course, the sugar in homeopathic pellets doesn’t have any effect. And the drops added also contain no active substances.

In other words, there is no active ingredient!

As homeopathic remedies have very slow action, they cannot be used to treat acute illnesses!

This is correct. You cannot successfully use homeopathy in acute circumstances such as infections, fevers and colds. In fact, you cannot use it to cure any condition, chronic or acute.

Homeopathy seems to be a kind of magic!

Homeopathy is not magic! It relies on the placebo and other non-specific effects, and that is no magic.

During homeopathic treatment you have to follow a strict diet!

Hahnemann gave very clear instructions to avoid a whole range of things while taking homeopathic remedies – otherwise, they don’t work, he claimed. This is as wrong as everything else Hahnemann said about homeopathy: these remedies don’t work whatever you do.

Diabetes sufferers can’t use homeopathic remedies!

This is not true. The amount of sugar in the pellets is negligible. These homeopathic pellets could even be taken on a daily basis. The foods we eat contain much more sugar, even those that are especially for diabetics. But that does, of course, not mean that diabetics ought to take homeopathic remedies. There is no reason why they should; these remedies are pure placebos.

__________________________________________________________________________

Few people reading these lines will be surprised that the ‘resounding answers’ turn out to be resounding lies. And what I above called ‘great fun’, turns out to be a serious deception.

The fascinating thing here is, I think, the way homeopaths try to mislead the public: one seemingly innocent untruth about the ‘active substance’ is used as the basis for an entire house of cards. It tumbles at the slightest attempt to provide the facts. Sadly, many consumers do not know the facts and are therefore prone to fall victim of these resounding lies.

There is perhaps not a law against such lies, but there certainly are moral and ethical principles that must not be violated:

TELLING LIES OF THIS NATURE IS UNETHICAL AND ENDANGERS THE HEALTH OF THOSE WHO DO NOT KNOW THE FACTS.

Why  do most alternative practitioners  show such dogged determination not to change their view of the efficacy of their therapy, even if  good evidence shows that it is a placebo? This is the question that I have been pondering for some time. I have seen many doctors change their mind about this or that treatment in the light of new evidence. In fact, I have not seen one who has not done so at some stage. Yet I have never seen an alternative therapist change his/her mind about his/her alternative therapy. Why is that?

You might say that the answers are obvious:

  • because they have heavily invested in their therapy, both emotionally and financially;
  • because their therapy has ‘stood the test of time’;
  • because they believe what they were taught;
  • because they are deluded, not very bright, etc.;
  • because they need to earn a living.

All of these reasons may apply. But do they really tell the whole story? While contemplating about this question, I thought of something that had previously not been entirely clear to me: they simply KNOW that the evidence MUST be wrong.

Let me try to explain.

Consider an acupuncturist (I could have chosen almost any other type of alternative practitioner) who has many years of experience. He has grown to be a well-respected expert in the world of acupuncture. He sits on various committees and has advised important institutions. He knows the literature and has treated thousands of patients.

This experience has taught him one thing for sure: his patients do benefit from his treatment. He has seen it happening too many times; it cannot be a coincidence. Acupuncture works, no question about it.

And this is also what the studies tell him. Even the most sceptical scientist cannot deny the fact that patients do get better after acupuncture. So, what is the problem?

The problem is that sceptics say that this is due to a placebo effect, and many studies seem to confirm this to be true. Yet, our acupuncturist completely dismisses the placebo explanation.

Why?

  • Because he has heavily invested in their therapy? Perhaps.
  • Because acupuncture has ‘stood the test of time’? Perhaps.
  • Because he believes what he has been taught? Perhaps.
  • Because he is deluded, not very bright, etc.? Perhaps.
  • Because he needs to earn a living? Perhaps.

But there is something else.

He has only ever treated his patients with acupuncture. He has therefore no experience of real medicine, or other therapeutic options. He has no perspective. Therefore, he does not know that patients often get better, even if they receive an ineffective treatment, even if they receive no treatment, and even if they receive a harmful treatment. Every improvement he notes in his patients, he relates to his acupuncture. Our acupuncturist never had the opportunity to learn to doubt cause and effect in his clinical routine. He never had to question the benefits of acupuncture. He never had to select from a pool of therapies the optimal one, because he only ever used acupuncture.

It is this lack of experience that never led him to think critically about acupuncture. He is in a similar situation as physicians were 200 years ago; they only (mainly) had blood-letting, and because some patients improved with it, they had no reason to doubt it. He only ever saw his successes (not that all his patients improved, but those who did not, did not return). He simply KNOWS that acupuncture works, because his own, very limited experience never forced him to consider anything else. And because he KNOWS, the evidence that does not agree with his knowledge MUST be wrong.

I am of course exaggerating and simplifying in order to make a point. And please don’t get me wrong.

I am not saying that doctors cannot be stubborn. And I am not saying that all alternative practitioners have such limited experience and are unable to change their mind in the light of new evidence. However, I am trying to say that many alternative practitioners have a limited perspective and therefore find it impossible to be critical about their own practice.

If I am right, there would be an easy (and entirely alternative) cure to remedy this situation. We should sent our acupuncturist to a homeopath (or any other alternative practitioner whose practice he assumes to be entirely bogus) and ask him to watch what kind of therapeutic success the homeopath is generating. The acupuncturist would soon see that it is very similar to his own. He would then have the choice to agree that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are effective in curing illness, or that the homeopath relies on the same phenomenon as his own practice: placebo.

Sadly, this is not going to happen, is it?

 

1 2 3 8
Recent Comments

Note that comments can be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted.


Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.

Categories