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Does thinking make it so? CAM placebo fantasy versus scientific reality

Last week, I discussed a rather execrable study. Actually, the study itself wasn’t so execrable, at least not in its design, which was a fairly straightforward three-arm randomized clinical trial. Rather it was the interpretation of the study’s results that was execrable. In brief, the authors tested an “energy healing” modality known as “energy chelation” versus a placebo (sham “energy chelation”) and found, as is so often the case in studies of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM) that both modalities did better than no treatment on the primary outcomes but that the “real” treatment (if one can call energy chelation “real treatment”) produced outcomes that were statistically indistinguishable from the “sham” treatment. Not surprisingly, the next move on the part of the researchers was to do a bunch of comparisons, and, as is so often the case (particularly when one fails to correct statistically for multiple comparisons), they found a couple of secondary endpoints with barely statistically significant differences and trumpeted them as meaning that their “energy chelation therapy” has “significant promise for reducing fatigue.” They then argued that the study was also ” designed to examine nonspecific and placebo elements that may drive responses.”

Which brings us to the “power” of placebo.

As I was contemplating what I wanted to discuss this week, I thought about the study that Drs. Coyne, Johansen, and I objected to, but then I also thought about Dr. Crislip’s post last week and post I did about a month ago in which I noticed how lately CAM apologists seem to be—shall we say?—retooling their message in the wake of negative trial after negative trial of their implausible treatments. Gone (mostly) are claims of powerful specific effects and efficacy from treatments such as various “energy healing” modalities, acupuncture, homeopathy, and the like themselves, to be replaced by claims that physicians should embrace CAM because it’s “harnessing the power of placebo” to produce “powerful mind-body healing.” It’s a powerful message that has sucked in people who normally would be considered skeptics, such as Michael Specter, who, as I described, apparently bought into the message sufficiently that when Ted Kaptchuk was making the media round right before the holidays he happily published a fairly credulous interview with him entitled, The Power of Nothing: Could Studying the Placebo Effect Change the Way We Think About Medicine? (My answer: Very likely no.) Even Ira Flatow of Science Friday fell hard for Kaptchuk’s message, declaring at the beginning of the interview that Kaptchuk’s irritable bowel syndrome study is evidence that “placebos work even when patients are in on the secret.” (It’s not.)

That skeptics and scientists find the idea that the mind has the power to heal the body, often referred to as “self-healing” or “mind-body healing,” so seductive should probably not be surprising. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to cure themselves simply by willing it to be so? It’s a concept that, like so many concepts in CAM, goes far back into ancient times and stretches forward to today in ideas like The Secret, which goes quite a bit beyond the whole idea of “mind-body healing” or healing yourself because you wish it to be so, and declares that you can have virtually anything you want simply by thinking the right thoughts. In fact, to me it appears that the “powerful placebo” is being drafted in the service of supporting what are, at their core, mystical beliefs far more than science. I’d like to elaborate on that idea a bit more than I did last time I discussed this isssue, where I concluded by writing:

In the end, all too much of the rebranding of CAM as placebo and the selling of placebos as some sort of powerful “mind-body healing” strikes me as being much like The Secret, in which wishing makes it so.

Let’s take a look at just how far this goes.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Religion

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Adventures in defending science-based medicine in cancer journals: Energy chelation

My co-bloggers and I have spent considerable time and effort over the last four years writing posts for this blog (and I for my not-so-super-secret other blog) bemoaning the infiltration of quackademic medicine into what once were bastions of evidence- and science-based medicine. We’ve discussed at considerable length reasons for why this steady infiltration of pseudoscience into medical academia has been occurring. Among other potential explanations, these reasons range from the ascendence of postmodernism in areas where it really doesn’t belong; to a change in our medical culture to a more “consumer”-oriented, “keep the customer satisfied”-sort of model in which patients are often referred to as “clients” or “customers”; to the corrosive influences of moneyed groups (such as the Bravewell Collaborative) and government agencies (such as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative medicine, a.k.a. NCCAM); to the equally corrosive influences of powerful woo-friendly legislators who use their position and influence to create such agencies (such as Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Dan Burton) and otherwise champion “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and “integrative medicine” because they are true believers in quackery; to cynical legislators, like Senator Orrin Hatch, who champions such government programs supporting pseudoscience because he represents a state that is home to the largest concentration of supplement manufacturers in the United States and is consequently a master at bringing any initiative to regulate the supplement industry more tightly to a screeching halt.

As a result of our efforts and the need for a counterweight to the quackery that has infiltrated so much of academia, SBM has become fairly prominent in the medical blogosphere. Our traffic is good, and we have a number of “thought leaders” who regularly read what we write. We’ve even caught the attention of Dr. Josephine Briggs, director of NCCAM, and our founder Steve Novella was even invited to appear on The Dr. Oz Show for “balance.” All of this is something that we are justly proud of. On the other hand, I can’t help but keep things in perspective. While our traffic as a blog is quite respectable and we have become prominent in the skeptical and medical blogosphere and even, to some extent, in academia—we’re particularly gratified at the number of medical students who are regular readers—compared to the forces arrayed against SBM in academia and the media, we have to face facts: We are truly a tiny voice in the wilderness. For instance, we average around 9,000 to 16,000 visits a day. Compare that traffic to the many millions who used to watch Oprah Winfrey and still watch her protégé Dr. Oz or to health media and product empires of people like Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra, and you get the idea.

All of this is why I started looking for opportunities to respond more directly to incursions of pseudoscience into medical academia. Occasional SBM contributor Peter Lipson provided me with just such an opportunity last summer when he sent me a link to a brain-meltingly bad study about the use of CAM in cancer that shows just how bad a study can be and still be published in what I used to consider a reasonably good cancer journal. I say “used to consider,” because the fact that this journal accepted a study this ludicrous indicates to me that its peer review is so broken that I now wonder about what else I’ve read in that journal that I should now discount as being too unreliable to take seriously. Maybe everything. I don’t know. What I do know is that seldom have I seen such a bad study in such a good cancer journal. Studies like the one about Tai Chi in fibromyalgia or placebo acupuncture applied to asthma don’t even come close.

Soon after this study appeared online ahead of print, James Coyne contacted me and asked me if I wanted to be co-author on a letter to the editor of the journal. Honored by Dr. Coyne’s request, I immediately said yes (of course), and together with Dr. Christoffer Johansen at the Survivorship Unit of the Danish Cancer Society, we submitted our letter to the editor. To my surprise, given the utter failure of past efforts to publish letters to the editor about studies of this sort, our letter was accepted for publication. Last week, the study in question saw print, and our letter was published online ahead of print, along with the response of the authors. All are instructive and, to me, show just what we are up against in trying to prevent pseudoscience from creeping into academia.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Medical Academia

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