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

irrationality

The ‘Samueli Institute’ might be known to many readers of this blog; it is a wealthy institution that is almost entirely dedicated to promoting the more implausible fringe of alternative medicine. The official aim is “to create a flourishing society through the scientific exploration of wellness and whole-person healing“. Much of its activity seems to be focused on military medical research. Its co-workers include Harald Walach who recently was awarded a rare distinction for his relentless efforts in introducing esoteric pseudo-science into academia.

Now researchers from the Californian branch of the Samueli Institute have published an articles whic, in my view, is another landmark in nonsense.

Jain and colleagues conducted a randomized controlled trial to determine whether Healing Touch with Guided Imagery [HT+GI] reduced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to treatment as usual (TAU) in “returning combat-exposed active duty military with significant PTSD symptoms“. HT is a popular form of para-normal healing where the therapist channels “energy” into the patient’s body; GI is a self-hypnotic from of relaxation-therapy. While the latter approach might be seen as plausible and, at least to some degree, evidence-based, the former cannot.

123 soldiers were randomized to 6 sessions of HT+GI, while the control group had no such therapies. All patients also received standard conventional therapies, and the treatment period was three weeks. The results showed significant reductions in PTSD symptoms as well as depression for HT+GI compared to controls. HT+GI also showed significant improvements in mental quality of life and cynicism.

The authors concluded that HT+GI resulted in a clinically significant reduction in PTSD and related symptoms, and that further investigations of biofield therapies for mitigating PTSD in military populations are warranted.

The Samueli Institute claims to “support science grounded in observation, investigation, and analysis, and [to have] the courage to ask challenging questions within a framework of systematic, high-quality, research methods and the peer-review process“. I do not think that the above-named paper lives up to these standards.

As discussed in some detail in a previous post, this type of study-design is next to useless for determining whether any intervention does any good at all: A+B is always more than B alone! Moreover, if we test HT+GI as a package, how can we conclude about the effectiveness of one of the two interventions? Thus this trial tells us next to nothing about the effectiveness of HT, nor about the effectiveness of HT+GI.

Previously, I have argued that conducting a trial for which the result is already clear before the first patient has been recruited, is not ethical. Samueli Institute, however, claims that it “acts with the highest respect for the public it serves by ensuring transparency, responsible management and ethical practices from discovery to policy and application“. Am I the only one who senses a contradiction here?

Perhaps other research in this area might be more informative? Even the most superficial Medline-search brings to light a flurry of articles on HT and other biofield therapies that are relevant.

Several trials have indeed produces promissing evidence suggesting positive effects of such treatments on anxiety and other symptoms. But the data are far from uniform, and most investigations are wide open to bias. The more rigorous studies seem to suggest that these interventions are not effective beyond placebo. Our review demonstrated that “the evidence is insufficient” to suggest that reiki, another biofield therapy, is an effective treatment for any condition.

Another study showed that tactile touch led to significantly lower levels of anxiety. Conventional massage may even be better than HT, according to some trials. The conclusion from this body of evidence is, I think, fairly obvious: touch can be helpful (most clinicians knew that anyway) but this has nothing to do with energy, biofields, healing energy or any of the other implausible assumptions these treatments are based on.

I therefore disagree with the authors’ conclusion that “further investigation into biofield therapies… is warranted“. If we really want to help patients, let’s find out more about the benefits of touch and let’s not mislead the public about some mystical energies and implausible quackery. And if we truly want to improve heath care, as the Samueli Institute claims, let’s use our limited resources for research which meaningfully contributes to our knowledge.

On the last day of the year, is time to contemplate the achievements and failures of the past 12 months and think about the future. For me, it is also the moment to once again place my tongue in my cheek, empathise with my opponents and think of what they might hope for in the coming year.

Here is a brief yet somewhat ambitious expose of what I came up with: the charlatan’s wish list for 2013.

1 Let the Daily Mail and similar publications continue to promote uncritical thinking and bogus claims for alternative medicine.

2 Make sure that politicians remain blissfully ignorant of all matters related to science.

3 Let the anecdote continue to reign over evidence, for instance, in the popular press.

4 Regulate alternative practitioners such that they benefit from the added status without any obligation to abide by the generally accepted rules of evidence-based practice.

5 Prevent the closure of more homeopathic hospitals.

6 Ensure that the public continues to be mislead about nonsensical scams such as “integrated medicine”.

7 Increase the influence of Prince Charles in the realm of health care.

8 Give Royal status to the ‘College of Medicine’.

9 Appoint Dr Michael Dixon, chair of the ‘NHS-Alliance’ and the above-named “college”, as advisor to the government.

10 Introduce more post-modern thinking into health care; after all, there is more than one way of knowing!

11 Defame all those terrible sceptics who always doubt our claims.

12 Cherish double standards in medicine; they are essential for our survival!

13 Make sure researchers of alternative medicine use science not for testing but for proving the value of alternative therapies.

14 Continue to allow promotion of alternative medicine to masquerade as research.

15 Ensure that all our celebrity clients tell every journalist how young they look thanks to alternative medicine.

16 Let ‘Duchy’s Original detox Tincture’ become a financial success – Charles needs the added income for promoting quackery.

17 Open more woo-institutes in academia to spread the gospel of belief-based medicine.

18 Prevent anyone from finding out that many of us break even the most fundamental rules of medical ethics in our daily practice.

I am aware that the list is probably not nearly complete, and I invite everyone to add items of importance. Happy New Year!

 

 

In these austere and difficult times, it must be my duty, I think, to alert my fellow citizens to a possible source of additional income which almost anyone can plug into: become a charlatan, and chances are that your economic hardship is a memory from the past. To achieve this aim, I [with my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek] suggest a fairly straight forward step by step approach.

1. Find an attractive therapy and give it a fantastic name

Did I just say “straight forward”? Well, the first step isn’t that easy, after all. Most of the really loony ideas turn out to be taken: ear candles, homeopathy, aura massage, energy healing, urine-therapy, chiropractic etc. As a true charlatan, you want your very own quackery. So you will have to think of a new concept.

Something truly ‘far out’ would be ideal, like claiming the ear is a map of the human body which allows you to treat all diseases by doing something odd on specific areas of the ear – oops, this territory is already occupied by the ear acupuncture brigade. How about postulating that you have super-natural powers which enable you to send ‘healing energy’ into patients’ bodies so that they can repair themselves? No good either: Reiki-healers might accuse you of plagiarism.

But you get the gist, I am sure, and will be able to invent something. When you do, give it a memorable name, the name can make or break your new venture.

2. Invent a fascinating history

Having identified your treatment and a fantastic name for it, you now need a good story to explain how it all came about. This task is not all that tough and might even turn out to be fun; you could think of something touching like you cured your moribund little sister at the age of 6 with your intervention, or you received the inspiration in your dreams from an old aunt who had just died, or perhaps you want to create some religious connection [have you ever visited Lourdes?]. There are no limits to your imagination; just make sure the story is gripping – one day, they might make a movie of it.

3. Add a dash of pseudo-science

Like it or not, but we live in an age where we cannot entirely exclude science from our considerations. At the very minimum, I recommend a little smattering of sciency terminology. As you don’t want to be found out, select something that only few experts understand; quantum physics, entanglement, chaos-theory and Nano-technology are all excellent options.

It might also look more convincing to hint at the notion that top scientists adore your concepts, or that whole teams from universities in distant places are working on the underlying mechanisms, or that the Nobel committee has recently been alerted etc. If at all possible, add a bit of high tech to your new invention; some shiny new apparatus with flashing lights and digital displays might be just the ticket. The apparatus can be otherwise empty – as long as it looks impressive, all is fine.

4. Do not forget a dose of ancient wisdom

With all this science – sorry, pseudo-science – you must not forget to remain firmly grounded in tradition. Your treatment ought to be based on ancient wisdom which you have rediscovered, modified and perfected. I recommend mentioning that some of the oldest cultures of the planet have already been aware of the main pillars on which your invention today proudly stands. Anything that is that old has stood the test of time which is to say, your treatment is both effective and safe.

5. Claim to have a panacea

To maximise your income, you want to have as many customers as possible. It would therefore be unwise to focus your endeavours on just one or two conditions. Commercially, it is much better to affirm in no uncertain terms that your treatment is a cure for everything, a panacea. Do not worry about the implausibility of such a claim. In the realm of quackery, it is perfectly acceptable, even common behaviour to be outlandish.

6. Deal with the ‘evidence-problem’ and the nasty sceptics

It is depressing, I know, but even the most exceptionally gifted charlatan is bound to attract doubters. Sceptics will sooner or later ask you for evidence; in fact, they are obsessed by it. But do not panic – this is by no means as threatening as it appears. The obvious solution is to provide testimonial after testimonial.

You need a website where satisfied customers report impressive stories how your treatment saved their lives. In case you do not know such customers, invent them; in the realm of quackery, there is a time-honoured tradition of writing your own testimonials. Nobody will be able to tell!

7. Demonstrate that you master the fine art of cheating with statistics

Some of the sceptics might not be impressed, and when they start criticising your ‘evidence’, you might need to go the extra mile. Providing statistics is a very good way of keeping them at bay, at least for a while. The general consensus amongst charlatans is that about 70% of their patients experience remarkable benefit from whatever placebo they throw at them. So, my advice is to do a little better and cite a case series of at least 5000 patients of whom 76.5 % showed significant improvements.

What? You don’t have such case series? Don’t be daft, be inventive!

8. Score points with Big Pharma

You must be aware who your (future) customers are (will be): they are affluent, had a decent education (evidently without much success), and are middle-aged, gullible and deeply alternative. Think of Prince Charles! Once you have empathised with this mind-set, it is obvious that you can profitably plug into the persecution complex which haunts these people.

An easy way of achieving this is to claim that Big Pharma has got wind of your innovation, is positively frightened of losing millions, and is thus doing all they can to supress it. Not only will this give you street cred with the lunatic fringe of society, it also provides a perfect explanation why your ground-breaking discovery has not been published it the top journals of medicine: the editors are all in the pocket of Big Pharma, of course.

9. Ask for money, much money

I have left the most important bit for the end; remember: your aim is to get rich! So, charge high fees, even extravagantly high ones. If your treatment is a product that you can sell (e.g. via the internet, to escape the regulators), sell it dearly; if it is a hands-on therapy, charge heavy consultation fees and claim exclusivity; if it is a teachable technique, start training other therapists at high fees and ask a franchise-cut of their future earnings.

Over-charging is your best chance of getting famous – or have you ever heard of a charlatan famous for being reasonably priced?  It will also get rid of the riff-raff you don’t want to see in your surgery. Poor people might be even ill! No, you don’t want them; you want the ‘worried rich and well’ who can afford to see a real doctor when things should go wrong. But most importantly, high fees will do a lot of good to your bank account.

 

Now you are all set. However, to prevent you from stumbling at the first hurdle, here are some handy answers to the questions you inevitably will receive from sceptics, this nasty breed that is never happy. The answers are not designed to convince them but, if voiced in public, they will ensure that the general opinion is on your side – and that’s what is paramount in the realm of quackery.

Q: Your treatment can cause considerable harm; do you find that responsible?

A: Harm? Do you know what you are talking about? Obviously not! Every year, hundreds of thousands die because of the medicine they received from mainstream doctors. This is what I call harm!

Q: Experts say that your treatment is not biologically plausible, what is your response?

A: There are many things science does not yet understand and many things that it will never understand. In any case, there are other ways of knowing, and science is but one of them.

Q: Where are the controlled trials to back up your claim?

A: Clinical trials are of very limited value; they are far too small, frequently biased and never depict the real life situation. This is why many experts now argue for better ways of showing the value of medical interventions.

Q: Professor Ernst recently said that your therapy is unproven, is that true?

A: This man cannot be trusted; he is in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry! He would say that, wouldn’t he?

Anyway, did you know that only 15% of conventional therapies actually are evidence-based?

Q: Why is your treatment so expensive?

A: Years of training, a full research programme, constant audits, compliance with regulations, and a large team of co-workers – do you think that all of this comes free? Personally, I would treat all my patients for free (and often do so) but I have responsibilities to others, you know.

Let me briefly pick up the issue about ad hominem attacks mentioned at the end of my last post.

One of the most striking feature of the debates about alternative medicine is, in my experience, the fact that, whenever the defenders of the indefensible ran out of rational arguments, personal attacks are rarely far. Personal or ad hominem attacks are fallacious arguments directly directed at a named individual which serve as substitutes for that individual’s arguments. In football terminology, they play the player instead of the ball.

After many years of being at the receiving end of this phenomenon, I have grown to be amused by it, not just amused, I have slowly started to appreciate it. Strange? Let me explain.

Initially, I have to admit, I was annoyed, sometimes livid when someone hurled a personal attack in my direction. At one stage, I even investigated whether my university did not have the obligation to legally protect me in such situations. Predictably, the answer was negative.

Later I considered on one or two occasions taking legal action myself. However, after just a minimum of reflection, I dismissed the idea: it is bad enough that the British Chiropractic Association sued my friend and co-author Simon Singh for libel, but under no circumstances did I want to display a similarly deplorable behaviour.

Eventually, I realised that an ad hominem attack often is an important signal indicating that the attacker is wrong, very wrong indeed. It is nothing else than an open admission by “the other side” that they have no more reasonable arguments, that they are resorting to unreasonable notions, and that they have lost not just the plot but also the debate. In other words, being personally attacked in this way is a compliment and an unfailing sign of victory – and, if that is so, we should be proud of every single ad hominem attack we get after a well-reasoned debate.

Even on this relatively young blog, we have already seen signs of such victories; most notably a chiropractor recently conceded defeat after a perfectly reasonable debate on the safety of spinal manipulation by stating that “Ernst is an infamous medical demagogue who speaks nonsense“. Yet this little outburst of chiropractic self-humiliation is nothing compared to plethora of similar statements elsewhere on the internet. The following list is the result of just ~10 minutes of searching; I took the liberty of copying a short quote from each site but enthusiasts will find much more revealing stuff, I’m sure.

http://harald-walach.de/2012/12/18/mausetot-durch-homoeopathie-edzard-ernst-und-der-grosse-killer-nix/

“…whether he [Ernst] has only written or also read them [the reviews he has published], is a matter of dispute between experts…”

http://www.truthwillout.co.uk/2010/03/the-trials-of-edzard-ernst/

“…he’s really just another dull academic who knows nothing about it.   The fact that someone decided he could have a title that makes it sound like he’s knowledgable [sic] is irrelevant, he remains a nobody in the field of complementary therapy, his own university don’t even seem to like him, just about everything he says is negative and no ordinary member of the public I’ve ever mentioned him to has heard of him at all, so although he’s beloved by a few hacks and a small platoon of cynics, the rest of the world could not give a toss.”

http://avilian.co.uk/2012/02/edzard-ernst-exposed-as-a-fraud-and-a-liar/

“Edzard Ernst Exposed as a Fraud and a Liar”

http://www.naturalmatters.net/news-view.asp?news=4136

“Edzard Ernst, Britains self proclaimed “first Professor of Complementary Medicine” is finding himself with a lack of funding and his unit is facing closure.

He is blaming his clash with Prince Charles, but why Professor Ernst thinks anyone wants to fund someone who claims to be a professor of CAM, yet spends all his time debunking CAM we will never know. Its a rather strange scenario we feel!”

http://www.homeopathytoday.org/tag/edzard-ernst/

“From time to time you may see news reports about “an expert” named Edzard Ernst who regularly offers commentary about the value of homeopathic medicine. Ignore any such references he makes on the subject. He has never received even an introductory education on the subject of homeopathy”

http://www.chiropracticlive.com/why-should-anyone-believe-what-professor-edzard-ernst-says-after-he-put-his-name-to-a-bbc-programme-he-now-describes-as-deception/

“Why should anyone believe what Professor Edzard Ernst says, after he put his name to a BBC programme, he now describes as “deception”.”

http://johnbenneth.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/i-challenge-edzard-ernst-and-the-evil-empire-at-exeter/

“EDZARD ERNST and the Evil Empire at Exeter”

http://theunhivedmind.com/wordpress2/?p=816

“Edzard Ernst, is not a credible source of information about the effectiveness of homeopathy”

http://community.wddty.com/blogs/adverse_reactions/archive/2007/10/05/Herbicide.aspx

“Prof Edzard Ernst (family motto: ‘I have not come to praise alternative medicine, I have come to bury it’) who has hardly said a good word for alternative medicine in all the years he has held the recently-created Complementary Medicine chair at Exter [sic]University. ”

http://campaignfortruth.com/Eclub/120107/CTM%20-%20confusedaboutalternativemedicine.htm

“the pharma-friendly gold standard that Ernst and his colleagues seem to worship”

http://www.chiropractorsforfairjournalism.info/The_Medical_GoodFellas.html

Edzard Ernst of the Medical School at the University of Exeter wrote his infamous 2010 study from England, “Deaths After Chiropractic: A Review Of Published Cases,” that once again raised the level of fear over chiropractic care when he noted that “Twenty-six fatalities were published since 1934 in 23 articles

It is hard to deny that these statements are amusing. But by far my favourite personal attacker is a German chap called Claus Fritzsche. He runs a website which, at one stage, seemed almost entirely dedicated to telling lies about me; and, what is best of all, he even took money for these efforts from several homeopathic manufacturers. Surely, apart from perhaps the Nobel Prize, this must be the nicest recognition, the sweetest feast of victory and greatest compliment any scientist might ever wish for.

So, ad hominem attackers of all ages, types, nationalities and persuasions, please keep them coming. I am unlikely to sue for libel; on the contrary, I will celebrate them for what they truly are: they are compliments for me, victories for reason and admissions of defeat for you.

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