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

research

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In the latest issue of ‘Simile’ (the Faculty of Homeopathy‘s newsletter), the following short article with the above title has been published. I took the liberty of copying it for you:

Members of the Faculty of Homeopathy practising in the UK have the opportunity to take part in a trial of a new homeopathic remedy for treating infant colic. An American manufacturer of homeopathic remedies has made a registration application for the new remedy to the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) under the UK “National Rules” scheme. As part of its application the manufacturer is seeking at least two homeopathic doctors who would be willing to trial the product for about a year, then write a short report about using the remedy and its clinical results. If you would like to take part in the trial, further details can be obtained from …

END OF QUOTE

A homeopathic remedy for infant colic?

Yes, indeed!

The British Homeopathic Association and many similar ‘professional’ organisations recommend homeopathy for infant colic: Infantile colic is a common problem in babies, especially up to around sixteen weeks of age. It is characterised by incessant crying, often inconsolable, usually in the evenings and often through the night. Having excluded underlying pathology, the standard advice given by GPs and health visitors is winding technique, Infacol or Gripe Water. These measures are often ineffective but for­tunately there are a number of homeo­pathic medicines that may be effective. In my experience Colocynth is the most successful; alternatives are Carbo Veg, Chamomilla and Nux vomica.

SO, IT MUST BE GOOD!

But hold on, I cannot find a single clinical trial to suggest that homeopathy is effective for infant colic.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I see, that’s why they now want to conduct a trial!

They want to do the right thing and do some science to see whether their claims are supported by evidence.

How very laudable!

After all, the members of the Faculty of Homeopathy are doctors; they have certain ethical standards!

After all, the Faculty of Homeopathy aims to provide a high level of service to members and members of the public at all times.

Judging from the short text about the ‘homeopathy for infant colic trial’, it will involve a few (at least two) homeopaths prescribing the homeopathic remedy to patients and then writing a report. These reports will unanimously state that, after the remedy had been administered, the symptoms improved considerably. (I know this because they always do improve – with or without treatment.)

These reports will then be put together – perhaps we should call this a meta-analysis? – and the overall finding will be nice, positive and helpful for the American company.

And now, we all understand what homeopaths, more precisely the Faculty of Homeopathy, consider to be evidence.

 

 

The ‘Schwaebische Tageblatt’ is not on my regular reading list. But this article of yesterday (16/10/2018) did catch my attention. For those who read German, I will copy it below, and for those who don’t I will provide a brief summary and comment thereafter:

Die grün-schwarze Landesregierung lässt 2019 den ersten Lehrstuhl für Naturheilkunde und Integrative Medizin in Baden-Württemberg einrichten. Lehrstuhl für Naturheilkunde und Integrative Medizin

Ihren Schwerpunkt soll die Professur im Bereich Onkologie haben. Strömungen wie Homöopathie oder Anthroposophie sollen nicht gelehrt, aber innerhalb der Lehre beleuchtet werden, sagte Ingo Autenrieth, Dekan der Medizinischen Fakultät in Tübingen am Dienstag der Deutschen Presse-Agentur. «Ideologien und alles, was nichts mit Wissenschaft zu tun hat, sortieren wir aus.»

Die Professur soll sich demnach mit Themen wie Ernährung, Probiotika und Akupunktur beschäftigten. Geplant ist laut Wissenschaftsministerium, die Lehre in Tübingen anzusiedeln; die Erforschung der komplementären Therapien soll vorwiegend am Centrum für Tumorerkrankungen des Robert-Bosch-Krankenhauses in Stuttgart stattfinden. Die Robert-Bosch-Stiftung finanziert die Professur in den ersten fünf Jahren mit insgesamt 1,84 Millionen Euro, danach soll das Land die Mittel dafür bereitstellen.

«Naturheilkunde und komplementäre Behandlungsmethoden werden von vielen Menschen ganz selbstverständlich genutzt, beispielsweise zur Ergänzung konventioneller Therapieangebote», begründete Wissenschaftsministerin Theresia Bauer (Grüne) das Engagement. Sogenannte sanfte oder natürliche Methoden könnten schwere Krankheiten wie etwa Krebs alleine nicht heilen, heißt es in einer Mitteilung des Ministeriums. Wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse zeigten aber, dass sie häufig zu Therapieerfolgen beitragen könnten, da sie den Patienten helfen, schulmedizinische Therapien gut zu überstehen – etwa die schweren Nebenwirkungen von Chemotherapien mindern.

Im Gegensatz zur Schulmedizin gebe es bisher aber kaum kontrollierte klinische Studien zur Wirksamkeit solcher Therapien, ergänzte Ingo Autenrieth. Ihre Erforschung am neuen Lehrstuhl solle Patienten Sicherheit bringen und ermöglichen, dass die gesetzlichen Krankenkassen die Kosten dafür übernehmen.

Hersteller alternativer Arzneimittel loben den Schritt der Politik. «Baden-Württemberg nimmt damit eine Vorreiterrolle in Deutschland und in Europa ein», heißt es beim Unternehmen Wala Heilmittel GmbH in Bad Boll. Die Landesregierung trage mit der Entscheidung dem Wunsch vieler Patienten und Ärzte nach umfassenden Behandlungskonzepten Rechnung.

Auch hoffen die Unternehmen, dass Licht in die oft kritische Debatte um Homöopathie gebracht wird. «Wir sehen mit Erstaunen und Befremden, dass eine bewährte Therapierichtung wie die Homöopathie, die Teil der Vielfalt des therapeutischen Angebots in Deutschland ist, diskreditiert werden soll», sagte ein Sprecher des Herstellers Weleda AG mit Sitz in Schwäbisch Gmünd der Deutschen Presse-Agentur. Deshalb begrüße man den Lehrstuhl: «Es ist gut, dass Forschung und Lehre ausgebaut werden, da eine Mehrheit der Bevölkerung Komplementärmedizin wünscht und nachfragt. Es braucht Ärzte, die in diesen Bereichen auch universitär ausgebildet werden.»

Laut Koalitionsvertrag will Baden-Württemberg künftig eine Vorreiterrolle in der Erforschung der Komplementärmedizin einnehmen. Bisher gab es im Südwesten mit dem Akademischen Zentrum für Komplementäre und Integrative Medizin (AZKIM) zwar einen Verbund der Unikliniken Tübingen, Freiburg, Ulm und Heidelberg, aber keinen eigenen Lehrstuhl. Bundesweit existieren nach Angaben der Hufelandgesellschaft, dem Dachverband der Ärztegesellschaften für Naturheilkunde und Komplementärmedizin, Lehrstühle für Naturheilkunde noch an den Universitäten Duisburg-Essen, Rostock und Witten/Herdecke sowie drei Stiftungsprofessuren an der Berliner Charité.

END OF QUOTE

And here is my English summary:

The black/green government of Baden-Wuerttemberg has decided to create a ‘chair of naturopathy and integrated medicine’ at the university of Tuebingen in 2019. The chair will focus in the area of oncology. Treatments such as homeopathy and anthroposophical medicine will not be taught but merely mentioned in lectures. Ideologies and everything that is not science will be omitted.

The chair will thus deal with nutrition, acupuncture and probiotics. The teaching activities will be in the medical faculty at Tuebingen, while the research will be located at the Robert-Bosch Hospital in Stuttgart. The funds for the first 5 years – 1.84 million Euro – will come from the Robert-Bosch Foundation; thereafter they will be provided by the government of the county.

So-called gentle or natural therapies cannot cure serious diseases on their own, but as adjuvant treatments they can be helful, for instance, in alleviating the adverse effects of chemotherapy. There are only few studies on this, and the new chair will increase patient safety and facilitate the reimbursement of these treatments by health insurances.

Local anthroposophy manufacturers like Wala welcomed the move stating it would be in accordance with the wishes of many patients and doctors. They also hope that the move will bring light in the current critical debate about homeopathy. A spokesperson of Weleda added that they ‘note with surprise that time-tested therapies like homeopathy are being discredited. Therefore, it is laudable that research and education in this realm will be extended. The majority of the public want complementary medicine and need doctors who are also university-trained.’

Baden-Wurttemberg aims for a leading role in researching complementary medicine. Thus far, chairs of complementary medicine existed only at the universities of Duisburg-Essen, Rostock und Witten/Herdecke as well as three professorships at the Charité in Berlin.

END OF MY SUMMARY

As I have occupied a chair of complementary medicine for 19 years, I am tempted to add a few points here.

  • In principle, a new chair can be a good thing.
  • The name of the chair is odd, to say the least.
  • As the dean of the Tuebingen medical school pointed out, it has to be based on science. But how do they define science?
  • Where exactly does the sponsor, the Robert-Bosch Stiftung, stand on alternative medicine. Do they have a track-record of being impractical and scientific?
  • In order to prevent this becoming a unrealistic prospect, it is essential that the new chair needs to fall into the hands of a scientist with a proven track record of critical thinking.
  • Rigorous scientist with a proven track record of critical thinking are very rare in the realm of alternative medicine.
  • The ridiculous comments by Wala and Weleda, both local firms with considerable local influence, sound ominous and let me suspect that proponents of alternative medicine aim to exert their influence on the new chair.
  • The above-voiced notion that the new chair is to facilitate the reimbursement of alternative treatments by the health insurances seems even more ominous. Proper research has to be objective and could, depending on its findings, have the opposite effect. To direct it in this way seems to determine its results before the research has started.
  • I miss a firm commitment to medical ethics, to the principles of EBM, and to protecting the independence of the new chair.

Thus, I do harbour significant anxieties about this new chair. It is in danger of becoming a chair of promoting pseudoscience. I hope the dean of the Tuebingen medical school might read these lines.

I herewith offer him all the help I can muster in keeping pseudoscience out of this initiative, in defining the remit of the chair and, crucially, in finding the right individual for doing the job.

Medline is the biggest electronic databank for articles published in medicine and related fields. It is therefore the most important source of information in this area. I use it regularly to monitor what new papers have been published in the various fields of alternative medicine.

As the number of Medline-listed papers dated 2018 on homeopathy has just reached 100, I thought it might be the moment to run a quick analysis on this material. The first thing to note is that it took until August for 100 articles dated 2018 to emerge. To explain how embarrassing this is, we need a few comparative figures. At the same moment (6/9/18), we have, for instance:

  • 126576 articles for surgery
  • 5001 articles or physiotherapy
  • 30215 articles for psychiatry
  • 60161 articles for pharmacology

Even compared to other types of alternative medicine, homeopathy is being dwarfed. Currently the figures are, for instance:

  • 2232 for herbal medicine
  • 1949 for dietary supplements
  • 1222 for acupuncture

This does not look as though homeopathy is a frightfully active area of research, if I may say so. Looking at the type of articles (yes, I did look at all the 100 papers and categorised them the best I could) published in homeopathy, things get even worse:

  • 29 were comments, letters, editorials, etc.
  • 16 were basic and pre-clinical papers,
  • 12 were non-systematic reviews,
  • 10 were surveys,
  • 7 were case-reports,
  • 5 were pilot or feasibility studies,
  • 5 were systematic reviews,
  • 5 were controlled clinical trials,
  • 2 were case series,
  • the rest of the articles was not on homeopathy at all.

I find this pretty depressing. Most of the 100 papers turn out to be no real research at all. Crucial topics are not being covered. There was, for example, not a single paper on the risks of homeopathy (no, don’t tell me it is harmless; it can and does regularly cost the lives of patients who trust the bogus claims of homeopaths). There was no article investigating the important question whether the practice of homeopathy does not violate the rules of medical ethics (think of informed consent or the imperative to do more harm than good). And a mere 5 clinical trials is just a dismal amount, in my view.

In a previous post, I have already shown that, in 2015, homeopathy research was deplorable. My new analysis suggests that the situation has become much worse. One might even go as far as asking whether 2018 might turn out to be the year when homeopathy research finally died a natural death.

PROGRESS AT LAST!!!

Bacterial vaginosis is a common condition which is more than a triviality. It can have serious consequences including pelvic inflammatory disease, endometritis, postoperative vaginal cuff infections, preterm labor, premature rupture of membranes, and chorioamnionitis. Therefore, it is important to treat it adequately with antibiotics. But are there other options as well?

There are plenty of alternative or ‘natural’ treatments on offer. But do they work?

This trial was conducted on 127 women with bacterial vaginosis to compare a vaginal suppository of metronidazole with Forzejeh, a vaginal suppository of herbal Persian medicine combination of

  • Tribulus terrestris,
  • Myrtus commuis,
  • Foeniculum vulgare,
  • Tamarindus indica.

The patients (63 in metronidazole group and 64 in Forzejeh group) received the medications for 1 week. Their symptoms including the amount and odour of discharge and cervical pain were assessed using a questionnaire. Cervical inflammation and Amsel criteria (pH of vaginal discharge, whiff test, presence of clue cells and Gram staining) were investigated at the beginning of the study and 14 days after treatment.

The amount and odour of discharge, Amsel criteria, pelvic pain and cervical inflammation significantly decreased in Forzejeh and metronidazole groups (p = <.001). There was no statistically significant difference between the metronidazole and Fozejeh groups with respect to any of the clinical symptoms or the laboratory assessments.

The authors concluded that Forzejeh … has a therapeutic effect the same as metronidazole in bacterial vaginosis.

The plants in Fozejeh are assumed to have antimicrobial activities. Forzejeh has been used in folk medicine for many years but was only recently standardised. According to the authors, this study shows that the therapeutic effects of Forzejeh on bacterial vaginosis is similar to metronidazole.

Yet, I am far less convinced than these Iranian researchers. As this trial compared two active treatments, it was an equivalence study. As such, it requires a different statistical approach and a much larger sample size. The absence of a difference between the two groups is most likely due to the fact that the study was too small to show it.

If I am correct, the present investigation only demonstrates yet again that, with flawed study-designs, it is easy to produce false-positive results.

In one of his many comments, our friend Iqbal just linked to an article that unquestionably is interesting. Here is its abstract (the link also provides the full paper):

Objective: The objective was to assess the usefulness of homoeopathic genus epidemicus (Bryonia alba 30C) for the prevention of chikungunya during its epidemic outbreak in the state of Kerala, India.

Materials and Methods: A cluster- randomised, double- blind, placebo -controlled trial was conducted in Kerala for prevention of chikungunya during the epidemic outbreak in August-September 2007 in three panchayats of two districts. Bryonia alba 30C/placebo was randomly administered to 167 clusters (Bryonia alba 30C = 84 clusters; placebo = 83 clusters) out of which data of 158 clusters was analyzed (Bryonia alba 30C = 82 clusters; placebo = 76 clusters) . Healthy participants (absence of fever and arthralgia) were eligible for the study (Bryonia alba 30 C n = 19750; placebo n = 18479). Weekly follow-up was done for 35 days. Infection rate in the study groups was analysed and compared by use of cluster analysis.

Results: The findings showed that 2525 out of 19750 persons of Bryonia alba 30 C group suffered from chikungunya, compared to 2919 out of 18479 in placebo group. Cluster analysis showed significant difference between the two groups [rate ratio = 0.76 (95% CI 0.14 – 5.57), P value = 0.03]. The result reflects a 19.76% relative risk reduction by Bryonia alba 30C as compared to placebo.

Conclusion: Bryonia alba 30C as genus epidemicus was better than placebo in decreasing the incidence of chikungunya in Kerala. The efficacy of genus epidemicus needs to be replicated in different epidemic settings.

________________________________________________________________________________

I have often said the notion that homeopathy might prevent epidemics is purely based on observational data. Here I stand corrected. This is an RCT! What is more, it suggests that homeopathy might be effective. As this is an important claim, let me quickly post just 10 comments on this study. I will try to make this short (I only looked at it briefly), hoping that others complete my criticism where I missed important issues:

  1. The paper was published in THE INDIAN JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN HOMEOPATHY. This is not a publication that could be called a top journal. If this study really shows something as revolutionarily new as its conclusions imply, one must wonder why it was published in an obscure and inaccessible journal.
  2. Several of its authors are homeopaths who unquestionably have an axe to grind, yet they do not declare any conflicts of interest.
  3. The abstract states that the trial was aimed at assessing the usefulness of Bryonia C30, while the paper itself states that it assessed its efficacy. The two are not the same, I think.
  4. The trial was conducted in 2007 and published only 7 years later; why the delay?
  5. The criteria for the main outcome measure were less than clear and had plenty of room for interpretation (“Any participant who suffered from fever and arthralgia (characteristic symptoms of chikungunya) during the follow-up period was considered as a case of chikungunya”).
  6. I fail to follow the logic of the sample size calculation provided by the authors and therefore believe that the trial was woefully underpowered.
  7. As a cluster RCT, its unit of assessment is the cluster. Yet the significant results seem to have been obtained by using single patients as the unit of assessment (“At the end of follow-ups it was observed that 12.78% (2525 out of 19750) healthy individuals, administered with Bryonia alba 30 C, were presented diagnosed as probable case of chikungunya, whereas it was 15.79% (2919 out of 18749) in the placebo group”).
  8. The p-value was set at 0.05. As we have often explained, this is far too low considering that the verum was a C30 dilution with zero prior probability.
  9. Nine clusters were not included in the analysis because of ‘non-compliance’. I doubt whether this was the correct way of dealing with this issue and think that an intention to treat analysis would have been better.
  10. This RCT was published 4 years ago. If true, its findings are nothing short of a sensation. Therefore, one would have expected that, by now, we would see several independent replications. The fact that this is not the case might mean that such RCTs were done but failed to confirm the findings above.

As I said, I would welcome others to have a look and tell us what they think about this potentially important study.

I have often cautioned my readers about the ‘evidence’ supporting acupuncture (and other alternative therapies). Rightly so, I think. Here is yet another warning.

This systematic review assessed the clinical effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of postpartum depression (PPD). Nine trials involving 653 women were selected. A meta-analysis demonstrated that the acupuncture group had a significantly greater overall effective rate compared with the control group. Moreover, acupuncture significantly increased oestradiol levels compared with the control group. Regarding the HAMD and EPDS scores, no difference was found between the two groups. The Chinese authors concluded that acupuncture appears to be effective for postpartum depression with respect to certain outcomes. However, the evidence thus far is inconclusive. Further high-quality RCTs following standardised guidelines with a low risk of bias are needed to confirm the effectiveness of acupuncture for postpartum depression.

What a conclusion!

What a review!

What a journal!

What evidence!

Let’s start with the conclusion: if the authors feel that the evidence is ‘inconclusive’, why do they state that ‘acupuncture appears to be effective for postpartum depression‘. To me this does simply not make sense!

Such oddities are abundant in the review. The abstract does not mention the fact that all trials were from China (published in Chinese which means that people who cannot read Chinese are unable to check any of the reported findings), and their majority was of very poor quality – two good reasons to discard the lot without further ado and conclude that there is no reliable evidence at all.

The authors also tell us very little about the treatments used in the control groups. In the paper, they state that “the control group needed to have received a placebo or any type of herb, drug and psychological intervention”. But was acupuncture better than all or any of these treatments? I could not find sufficient data in the paper to answer this question.

Moreover, only three trials seem to have bothered to mention adverse effects. Thus the majority of the studies were in breach of research ethics. No mention is made of this in the discussion.

In the paper, the authors re-state that “this meta-analysis showed that the acupuncture group had a significantly greater overall effective rate compared with the control group. Moreover, acupuncture significantly increased oestradiol levels compared with the control group.” This is, I think, highly misleading (see above).

Finally, let’s have a quick look at the journal ‘Acupuncture in Medicine’ (AiM). Even though it is published by the BMJ group (the reason for this phenomenon can be found here: “AiM is owned by the British Medical Acupuncture Society and published by BMJ”; this means that all BMAS-members automatically receive the journal which thus is a resounding commercial success), it is little more than a cult-newsletter. The editorial board is full of acupuncture enthusiasts, and the journal hardly ever publishes anything that is remotely critical of the wonderous myths of acupuncture.

My conclusion considering all this is as follows: we ought to be very careful before accepting any ‘evidence’ that is currently being published about the benefits of acupuncture, even if it superficially looks ok. More often than not, it turns out to be profoundly misleading, utterly useless and potentially harmful pseudo-evidence.


Reference

Acupunct Med. 2018 Jun 15. pii: acupmed-2017-011530. doi: 10.1136/acupmed-2017-011530. [Epub ahead of print]

Effectiveness of acupuncture in postpartum depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis.

Li S, Zhong W, Peng W, Jiang G.

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.

On this blog, we constantly discuss the shortcomings of clinical trials of (and other research into) alternative medicine. Yet, there can be no question that research into conventional medicine is often unreliable as well.

What might be the main reasons for this lamentable fact?

A recent BMJ article discussed 5 prominent reasons:

Firstly, much research fails to address questions that matter. For example, new drugs are tested against placebo rather than against usual treatments. Or the question may already have been answered, but the researchers haven’t undertaken a systematic review that would have told them the research was not needed. Or the research may use outcomes, perhaps surrogate measures, that are not useful.

Secondly, the methods of the studies may be inadequate. Many studies are too small, and more than half fail to deal adequately with bias. Studies are not replicated, and when people have tried to replicate studies they find that most do not have reproducible results.

Thirdly, research is not efficiently regulated and managed. Quality assurance systems fail to pick up the flaws in the research proposals. Or the bureaucracy involved in having research funded and approved may encourage researchers to conduct studies that are too small or too short term.

Fourthly, the research that is completed is not made fully accessible. Half of studies are never published at all, and there is a bias in what is published, meaning that treatments may seem to be more effective and safer than they actually are. Then not all outcome measures are reported, again with a bias towards those are positive.

Fifthly, published reports of research are often biased and unusable. In trials about a third of interventions are inadequately described meaning they cannot be implemented. Half of study outcomes are not reported.

END OF QUOTE

Apparently, these 5 issues are the reason why 85% of biomedical research is being wasted.

That is in CONVENTIONAL medicine, of course.

What about alternative medicine?

There is no question in my mind that the percentage figure must be even higher here. But do the same reasons apply? Let’s go through them again:

  1. Much research fails to address questions that matter. That is certainly true for alternative medicine – just think of the plethora of utterly useless surveys that are being published.
  2. The methods of the studies may be inadequate. Also true, as we have seen hundreds of time on this blog. Some of the most prevalent flaws include in my experience small sample sizes, lack of adequate controls (e.g. A+B vs B design) and misleading conclusions.
  3. Research is not efficiently regulated and managed. True, but probably not a specific feature of alternative medicine research.
  4. Research that is completed is not made fully accessible. most likely true but, due to lack of information and transparency, impossible to judge.
  5. Published reports of research are often biased and unusable. This is unquestionably a prominent feature of alternative medicine research.

All of this seems to indicate that the problems are very similar – similar but much more profound in the realm of alternative medicine, I’d say based on many years of experience (yes, what follows is opinion and not evidence because the latter is hardly available).

The thing is that, like almost any other job, research needs knowledge, skills, training, experience, integrity and impartiality to do it properly. It simply cannot be done well without such qualities. In alternative medicine, we do not have many individuals who have all or even most of these qualities. Instead, we have people who often are evangelic believers in alternative medicine, want to further their field by doing some research and therefore acquire a thin veneer of scientific expertise.

In my 25 years of experience in this area, I have not often seen researchers who knew that research is for testing hypotheses and not for trying to prove one’s hunches to be correct. In my own team, those who were the most enthusiastic about a particular therapy (and were thus seen as experts in its clinical application), were often the lousiest researchers who had the most difficulties coping with the scientific approach.

For me, this continues to be THE problem in alternative medicine research. The investigators – and some of them are now sufficiently skilled to bluff us to believe they are serious scientists – essentially start on the wrong foot. Because they never were properly trained and educated, they fail to appreciate how research proceeds. They hardly know how to properly establish a hypothesis, and – most crucially – they don’t know that, once that is done, you ought to conduct investigation after investigation to show that your hypothesis is incorrect. Only once all reasonable attempts to disprove it have failed, can your hypothesis be considered correct. These multiple attempts of disproving go entirely against the grain of an enthusiast who has plenty of emotional baggage and therefore cannot bring him/herself to honestly attempt to disprove his/her beloved hypothesis.

The plainly visible result of this situation is the fact that we have dozens of alternative medicine researchers who never publish a negative finding related to their pet therapy (some of them were admitted to what I call my HALL OF FAME on this blog, in case you want to verify this statement). And the lamentable consequence of all this is the fast-growing mountain of dangerously misleading (but often seemingly robust) articles about alternative treatments polluting Medline and other databases.

The Impact Factor (IF) of a journal is a measure reflecting the yearly average number of citations to recent articles published in that journal. It is frequently used as a measure of the importance of a journal within its field; journals with higher impact factors are often deemed to be more important than those with lower ones. The IF for any given year can be calculated as the number of citations, received in that year, of articles published in that journal during the two preceding years, divided by the total number of articles published in that journal during the two preceding years.

press-release celebrated the new IF of the journal ‘HOMEOPATHY’ which has featured on this blog before. I am sure that you all want to share in this joy:

START OF QUOTE

For the second year running there has been an increase in the number of times articles published in the Faculty of Homeopathy’s journal Homeopathy have been cited in articles in other peer-reviewed publications. The figure known as the Impact Factor (IF) has risen from 1.16 to 1.524, which represents a 52% increase in the number of citations.

An IF is used to determine the impact a particular journal has in a given field of research and is therefore widely used as a measure of quality. The latest IF assessment for Homeopathy covers citations during 2017 for articles published in the previous two years (2015 and 2016).

Dr Peter Fisher, Homeopathy’s editor-in-chief, said: “Naturally the editorial team is delighted by this news. This success is due to the quality and international nature of research and other content we publish. So I thank all those who have contributed such high quality papers, maintaining the journal’s position as the world’s foremost publication in the scholarly study of homeopathy. I would particularly like to thank our senior deputy editor, Dr Robert Mathie for all his hard work.”

First published in 1911 as the British Homoeopathic Journal, Homeopathy is the only homeopathic journal indexed by Medline, with over 100,000 full-text downloads per year. In January 2018, publishing responsibilities for the quarterly journal moved to Thieme, an award-winning medical and science publisher.

Greg White, Faculty chief executive, said: “Moving to a new publisher can be difficult, but the decision we took last year is certainly paying dividends. I would therefore like to thank everyone at Thieme for the part they are playing in the journal’s continued success.”

END OF QUOTE

While the champagne corks might be popping in homeopathic circles, I want to try and give some perspective to this celebration.

The IP has rightly been criticised so many times for so many reasons, that it is now not generally considered to be a valuable measure for anything. The main reason for this is that it can be (and is being) manipulated in numerous ways. But even if we accept the IP as a meaningful parameter, we must ask what an IP of 1.5 means and how it compares to other medical journals’ IP.

Here are some IFs of general and specialised medical journals readers of this blog might know:

Annals Int Med: 2016/2017 Impact Factor : 17.135,

BMJ: 2016/2017 Impact Factor : 20.785,

Circulation: 2016/2017 Impact Factor : 19.309,

Diabetes Care: 2016/2017 Impact Factor : 11.857,

Gastroenterology: 2016/2017 Impact Factor : 18.392,

Gut: 2016/2017 Impact Factor : 16.658,

J Clin Oncol: 2016/2017 Impact Factor : 24.008,

Lancet: 2016/2017 Impact Factor : 47.831,

Nature Medicine: 2016/2017 Impact Factor : 29.886,

Plos Medicine: 2016/2017 Impact Factor : 11.862,

Trends Pharm Sci: 2016/2017 Impact Factor : 12.797,

This selection seems to indicate that an IF of 1.5 is modest, to say the least. In turn, this means that the above press-release is perhaps just a little bit on the hypertrophic side.

But, of course, it’s all about homeopathy where, as we all know, LESS IS MORE!

One of the biggest danger of SCAM, in my view, is the fact that SCAM-practitioners all too often advise their patients to forego effective conventional medicine. This probably applies to most medicines, but is best-researched for immunisations. A recent article puts it clearly:

… negative attitudes towards vaccines reflect a broader and deeper set of beliefs about health and wellbeing… this alternative worldview is influenced by ontological confusions (e.g. regarding purity, natural energy), and knowledge based on personal lived experience and trusted peers, rather than the positivist epistemological framework. [This] view is supported by recent social-psychological research, including strong correlations of vaccine scepticism with adherence to complementary and alternative medicine, magical health beliefs, and conspiracy ideation. For certain well-educated and well-resourced individuals, opposition to vaccines represents an expression of personal intuition and agency, in achieving a positive and life-affirming approach to health and wellbeing. These core beliefs are not amenable to change – and especially resistant to communications from orthodox, authoritative sources.

The authors concluded suggesting that a better long-term strategy is to combine with other disciplines in order to address the root causes of vaccine scepticism. Vaccine scepticism is unlikely to thrive in a cultural context that trusts and values the scientific consensus.

If I understand them correctly, the authors believe it is necessary to change the societal attitude to science.

I am sure they are correct.

We live in a time when anyone’s opinion is deemed as valuable as the next person’s. Pseudo-experts who have their knowledge from a couple of google searches are being considered as trustworthy as the true experts who have the background, knowledge and experience to issue responsible advice. Science is viewed by many as just another way of knowing, or even as the new cult or religion that must be viewed with suspicion.

It is clear that these are deplorable developments. But how to stop them?

This is where it gets complex.

One is tempted to lay the blame at the door of our politicians. Why do we tolerate the fact that so many of them have not the slightest inkling about science?

But hold on, WE elected them!

Why?

Because large sections of the public are ignorant too.

So, one must start much earlier. We need better science education, and that has to begin in the first year of schooling! We need evening classes in critical thinking. We need adult science courses for politicians.

But this is not going to happen, because our politicians fail to see the importance of such measures (and, of course, they might feel that an uneducated public is easier to govern than an educated one).

How to break this vicious circle?

It is clear from these simple (and simplistic) reflections that a multifactorial approach is required. And it is clear that it ought to be a strategy that prevents standards in the most general terms from slipping ever lower. But how?

I wish I knew!!!

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