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Should physicians and managed care organizations offer homeopathy?

Homeopathy is water

Anyone who reads Science-Based Medicine on even a semi-regular basis will know our collective opinion of homeopathy. Basically, at its core, homeopathy is pure quackery.

I don’t care if it’s repetitive to say this yet again because it can’t be emphasized enough times that homeopathy is The One Quackery To Rule Them All. OK, there are others that compete for that title, such as reiki and other magical “energy therapies” like therapeutic touch, both of which, unfortunately, can be found in many academic medical centers where the faculty really should know better. Any “medicine” whose very precepts break multiple laws of physics and chemistry, laws that would have to be proven not just wrong but spectacularly wrong for homeopathy to work, deserves only ridicule.

The “laws” of homeopathy

Think of it this way. There are two “laws” of homeopathy, neither of which has any basis in reality. First, there is the law that states “like cures like” and asserts that, to relieve a symptom, you need to use a substance that causes that same symptom in healthy adults. There is, of course, no evidence that this is a general principle of medicine. For instance, we don’t generally treat fever by administering something that causes fever or treat vomiting with something that causes vomiting. The second law, however, is the one that’s completely ridiculous. Basically, it’s the law of infinitesimals. This law states that a homeopathic remedy is made stronger with dilution, specifically serial dilutions with vigorous shaking between each dilution step to “potentize” the remedy. That’s ridiculous enough, but homeopaths, never satisfied with the merely ridiculous have to turn the ridiculous up to 11 and beyond by using this principle to assert that dilutions far beyond the point where there is likely even to be a single molecule of the original remedy left are effective and become more so with more dilution. For instance, a 30C dilution is 30 one hundred-fold dilutions (C=100, get it?), or a 1060 dilution. Avogadro’s number is only on the order of 6 x 1023, or more than 1036-fold less than the dilution. The simple mathematics of homeopathy just doesn’t work, although this doesn’t stop homeopaths from coming up with some truly spectacular flights of pseudoscience (like the “memory of water”) to try to “explain” how it can work.
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Posted in: Homeopathy

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Clinical trials of homeopathy versus “respect for science”

Trojan Rabbit

A few months ago, Steve Novella and I published an article in Trends in Molecular Medicine entitled “Clinical trials of integrative medicine: testing whether magic works?” It was our first foray together into publishing commentary about science-based medicine versus evidence-based medicine, using a topic that we’ve both written extensively about over the years on this blog and our respective personal blogs. Specifically, we discussed whether it is worthwhile to do randomized clinical trials (RCTs) testing highly improbable treatments, such as reiki and homeopathy, both of which have no physical basis to believe that they do anything whatsoever. As I’ve said many times before, reiki is simply faith healing in which Eastern mysticism is substituted for Christian beliefs, and homeopathy, as we’ve discussed many times here on SBM, is vitalistic sympathetic magic with no evidence to support its two laws.

To our surprise, that article generated a fair amount of press (for example this), with accounts of it showing up in the media in various places and Steven and I being asked to do a fair number of interviews. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that the editor made the article available for free for a month after its initial publication. (Unfortunately it’s back behind the pay wall again.) Part of the reason is that, intuitively, it makes sense to people not to waste money testing what is, at its core, magic. When I followed up that publication with an article criticizing “integrative oncology” in Nature Reviews Cancer entitled “Integrative oncology: Really the best of both worlds?“, the target was well and truly on my back. Indeed, let’s just say that the Society for Integrative Oncology and the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine (CAHCIM) are quite unhappy with me. When both their letters to the editor are published (right now, only one is), I might even blog about them.

In the meantime, I want to deal with criticism published in an unexpected place, albeit not by unexpected critics. The reason is that this criticism relies on a common straw man caricature of what we are saying when we advocate science-based medicine (SBM) that considers prior plausibility in determining what modalities to test in clinical trials and understands Bayesian thinking in which prior plausibility affects posterior plausibility that a “significant” result is not a false positive in contrast to the current evidence-based medicine (EBM) paradigm, which relegates basic science knowledge, even well-established principles of science that show that something like, say, homeopathy or reiki is impossible under the current understanding of physics, chemistry and biology, to the lowest rung on the EBM pyramid. It’s also a criticism that comes up frequently enough that, even though it’s been addressed before in various ways by various SBM bloggers, it’s worth revisiting from time to time. In this case, that’s particularly so because one of the two critics taking Steve and me to task is currently embroiled in a controversy about testing homeopathy for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at the University of Toronto (more details on that later). Let’s just say, the criticism of Steve and me gives me an “in” to address a story that I thought had passed me by, and I intend to take it.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy

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A Scientist in Wonderland

Edzard Ernst is one of those rare people who dare to question their own beliefs, look at the evidence without bias, and change their minds. He went from practicing alternative medicine to questioning it, to researching it, to becoming its most prolific critic. I have long admired his work, and I finally met him in person when we were invited to speak at the same conferences. He shattered my stereotype of the stern, formal, self-important German “Herr Professor Doktor.” He was affable, unassuming, and funny; he was even a jazz musician. I wished I knew more about his history, and my wishes have been granted in the form of his new autobiographical book, A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble.

This is a well-written, entertaining book that anyone would enjoy reading and that advocates of alternative medicine should read: they might learn a thing or two about science, critical thinking, honesty, and the importance of truth.

This is a well-written, entertaining book that anyone would enjoy reading and that advocates of alternative medicine should read: they might learn a thing or two about science, critical thinking, honesty, and the importance of truth.

Edzard Ernst, the early years

Dr. Ernst was born in post-war Germany; his family had suffered greatly during the war and his uncle had been a general in the Waffen SS. He felt slightly ashamed to be German, and as a result he researched and wrote about Nazi health beliefs and medical atrocities so the history of their misdeeds would not be forgotten.

His father was a doctor, his mother an enthusiastic devotee of alternative medicine who subjected him to homeopathy, ice cold baths, and barefoot walks at dawn through wet grass. Early in life, Ernst began to manifest a tendency towards doubt and irreverence, along with an irrepressible sense of curiosity.

Music was his first love. He earned good money when he and his friends spent their summer vacation busking on the beach at St. Tropez, and he had been seriously considering a musical career until his mother persuaded him to study medicine. He earned an MD in Germany, in an environment where alternative medicine was unquestioningly integrated with mainstream medicine. He received hands-on training in acupuncture, autogenic training, herbalism, homeopathy, cupping, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, even leeches. His first job was in a homeopathic hospital where a colleague chose remedies by dowsing with a pendulum. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Clinical Trials, Critical Thinking

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Acupuncturist’s Unconvincing Attempt at Damage Control

Acupuncture has been in the news recently. A former President of South Korea had to undergo major surgery to remove an acupuncture needle that had somehow lodged in his lung.  A recent study in Pain compiled a list of 95 published reports of serious complications of acupuncture including 5 deaths. Meanwhile, acupuncturists continue to insist that their procedures are “safe.”

Edzard Ernst et al.’s article Acupuncture: Does it alleviate pain and are there serious risks? A review of reviews was published in the journal Pain in April 2011. It had two parts: (1) it was a systematic review of 57 systematic reviews showing that there was “little truly convincing evidence that acupuncture is effective in reducing pain,” and (2) it tabulated published reports of 5 deaths and 90 other serious complications of acupuncture treatments. I wrote an accompanying commentary, “Acupuncture’s claims punctured: Not proven effective for pain, not harmless.”

William Morris chastised me for not declaring a conflict of interest (!?) in my commentary. Now, in Acupuncture Today, he has criticized the Ernst et al. study itself.
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Posted in: Acupuncture

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Acupuncture Revisited

Believers in acupuncture claim it is supported by plenty of published scientific evidence. Critics disagree. Thousands of acupuncture studies have been done over the last several decades, with conflicting results. Even systematic reviews have disagreed with each other. The time had come to re-visit the entire body of acupuncture research and try to make sense out of it all. The indefatigable CAM researcher Edzard Ernst stepped up to the plate. He and his colleagues in Korea and Exeter did an exhaustive study that was published in the April 2011 issue of the medical journal Pain:   “Acupuncture: Does it alleviate pain and are there serious risks? A review of reviews.” It is accompanied by an editorial commentary written by yours truly: “Acupuncture’s claims punctured: Not proven effective for pain, not harmless.” (The editorial is reproduced in full below.)

Ernst et al. systematically reviewed all the systematic reviews of acupuncture published in the last 10 years: 57 systematic reviews met the criteria they set for inclusion in their analysis. They found a mix of negative, positive, and inconclusive results. There were only four conditions for which more than one systematic review reached the same conclusions, and only one of the four was positive (neck pain). They explain how inconsistencies, biases, conflicting conclusions, and recent high quality studies throw doubt on even the most positive reviews.

They also demolished the “acupuncture is harmless” myth by reporting 95 published cases of serious adverse effects including infection, pneumothorax, and 5 deaths. Some but not all of these might have been avoided by better training in anatomy and infection control. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture

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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part IV, Continued: More Cochrane and a little Bayes

OK, I admit that I pulled a fast one. I never finished the last post as promised, so here it is.

Cochrane Continued

In the last post I alluded to the 2006 Cochrane Laetrile review, the conclusion of which was:

This systematic review has clearly identified the need for randomised or controlled clinical trials assessing the effectiveness of Laetrile or amygdalin for cancer treatment.

I’d previously asserted that this conclusion “stand[s] the rationale for RCTs on its head,” because a rigorous, disconfirming case series had long ago put the matter to rest. Later I reported that Edzard Ernst, one of the Cochrane authors, had changed his mind, writing, “Would I argue for more Laetrile studies? NO.” That in itself is a reason for optimism, but Dr. Ernst is such an exception among “CAM” researchers that it almost seemed not to count.

Until recently, however, I’d only seen the abstract of the Cochrane Laetrile review. Now I’ve read the entire review, and there’s a very pleasant surprise in it (Professor Simon, take notice). In a section labeled “Feedback” is this letter from another Cochrane reviewer, which was apparently added in August of 2006, well before I voiced my own objections:

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Edzard Ernst Does It Again

Publishing one excellent book is an accomplishment; publishing two in one year is a truly outstanding achievement. In 2008 Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh published a landmark book Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine. I reviewed it on this blog last summer.  It is particularly important since Ernst is a former advocate for CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) who was able to objectively look at the scientific evidence and realize that it doesn’t support most CAM methods.

Before the year was out, Ernst had published another book, Healing, Hype or Harm? A Critical Analysis of Complementary or Alternative Medicine. It is a compilation of essays on various general and specific topics in CAM. Ernst is the editor; he and 15 other authors have contributed, mostly from the UK but also including Asbjorn Hrobjartsson from the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Denmark (the author of a landmark paper on placebos), Canadian health activist Terry Polevoy, and our own inimitable James (The Amaz!ng) Randi.

In the preface, Ernst says,

Our book tries to look behind the various smoke screens that tend to obstruct our vision and often prevent us from understanding the truth. The authors of this volume have very different backgrounds and views but they are all well-informed critics who do not dismiss CAM lightly. If they disapprove of certain aspects, they do so for well-argued reasons. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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Trick or Treatment

I’ve just finished reading Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. I’d been looking forward to the publication of this book, and it exceeded my expectations.

Edzard Ernst, based at the University of Exeter in England, is the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, a post he has held for 15 years. An MD and a PhD, he also embraced alternative medicine and used to practice homeopathy. He has done extensive research and published widely. His stated objective is “to apply the principles of evidence-based medicine to the field of complementary medicine such that those treatments which demonstrably do generate more good than harm become part of conventional medicine and those which fail to meet this criterion become obsolete.” His most important accomplishment has been to “demonstrate that complementary medicine can be scientifically investigated which, in turn, brought about a change in attitude both in the way the medical establishment looks upon complementary medicine and in the way complementary medicine looks upon scientific investigation.”

Simon Singh is a science writer with a PhD in particle physics. As a team, he and Ernst are uniquely qualified to ferret out the truth about alternative medicine and explain it to the public. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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