Category Archives: Apr 2015

Homeopathy improves fatigue and pain of cancer patients ten-fold

Few fields demonstrate the exercise of the pseudoscientific method more consistently than homeopathy. Any half-competent editor of a health magazine will be well aware of the red flags, and will steer clear of the junk studies that define the field.

You’ve already spotted the problem, haven’t you? Yes, the editor would have to be half competent. And also they would have to give a shit about facts, rather than their advertising sales.

Homeopathy dramatically improves the mental and physical well-being of cancer patients who are being treated with chemotherapy or radiotherapy, a major new study has discovered.

Really? I wonder who would produce such a study, and where it might get published?

Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 2015; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2015.03.004. A low impact factor (2.2) SCAM-specific journal.

“Influence of adjunctive classical homeopathy on global health status and subjective wellbeing in cancer patients – A pragmatic randomized controlled trial”

The word “pragmatic” is a red flag with homeopathy studies: it means that they are engaged in benefit finding, and have deliberately chosen not to try to eliminate many common sources of bias.

Half the 410 cancer patients, who were prescribed individual remedies, reported “significant improvements” in their levels of fatigue and pain, and had better appetites, than those who weren’t given the remedies. Improvements ranged from seven to 14 times in those taking homeopathy, say researchers from the Medical University of Vienna.

Did they indeed. So a group of people who received amateur talk therapy and magic sugar pills, reported subjective benefits, but no objective measures were used. This tells us precisely nothing that we did not already know.

Here’s something else we know: users of SCAM fare worse when they get cancer.  They delay treatment, trying worthless SCAM remedies first, so they present later and with more advanced disease, and even after controlling for that, they still die sooner.

With that in mind, one wonders why the Medical University of Vienna’s IRB approved this trial. Would they approve one on voodoo?  Maybe they would, it would not be the most unethical thing the university ever did, as Prof. Ernst reveals in his excellent A Scientist In Wonderland.

All the patients, who were being treated for stages 3 and 4 cancer, were interviewed every week while they were taking the remedies, and the improvements in the homeopathic group was very noticeable compared to the group who weren’t taking homeopathy.

According to a bunch of homeopaths. Of course the rigorous blinding that ensured that neither patient nor experimenter was aware of which group they were in, and the use of a carefully selected placebo (including controls for the homeopathic “consultation”, which another study shows is the only part of the whole charade that matters).

Oh, wait, no, they don’t appear to have done any of that.

Improvements in overall health were 10 times greater in the homeopathic group over the three weeks the remedies were taken.

Amazing, isn’t it? You wonder how such a striking finding could come out of a decently designed study given that three separate government reviews of homeopathy (Switzerland, UK and Australia) have failed to find a single condition for which it is provably effective.

There are two possibilities here:

  1. All the previous research is wrong, especially that showing that positive results are more likely when the study design is sloppy and less likely when it’s robust; most of physics is wrong; there are two complete parallel systems of action in human biochemistry, one of which has never been identified by scientists; and there is a form of energy that has never been detected or measured, but which has profound effects on human health.
  2. This is another badly-designed study by True Believers seeking to proselytise their faith.

Which is more likely? Answers on a razor please.

Proof of prayer

Lynne McTaggart runs the “healing intention experiment”, an exercise in wishful thinking designed to show that “wishing makes it so”.

The problem with this, of course, is that it is the same as intercessory prayer, and that has been tested and found not to work.

No wonder WDDTY were delighted when a meta-analysis by “scientists at Northampton university” (funded, it must be said, by the Confederation of Healing Organisations, an umbrella body for wishful thinkers) found a small but significant – or, to use WDDTY’s phrase, “pretty solid” proof – positive effect:

Do you believe in prayer or spiritual healing? Well, now there’s proof that distance healing works, and the evidence is pretty solid.

Explore journal. Looks sciencey!
Explore journal. Looks sciencey!

The evidence is in the form of a study by the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes and run by psychologist and parapsychologist Chris Roe. Psychology is not one of the more robust sciences, and has an inglorious history of peddling complete nonsense, and Roe is a Board member of the Parapsychological Association, edits the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and is on the board of the European Journal of Parapsychology.

The paper was published in Explore, a fringey journal of “Science and Healing” with an impact factor of 0.935. Not convinced? Take a look at this masterpiece. Mmmm! Quantum!

By contrast, the STEP study, a rigorous prospective double-blinded trial funded by the Templeton Foundation, found:

In the 2 groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not (relative risk 1.02, 95% CI 0.92-1.15). Complications occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% CI 1.02-1.28). Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups. (Benson et. al., 2005)

So, a believer in the paranormal analysed papers on the paranormal and came to the conclusion that the paranormal is real, in contrast to the robust findings of reality-based medical scientists.

That’s literally never happened hundreds of times before, has it?

Why is Roe’s conclusion so far at odds with the consensus of reality-based researchers? It’s not even necessary to invoke Ioannidis. You need only to look at the list of studies. Reality-based studies tend not to include publications from the The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (IF 1.5), the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, the Journal of Parapsychology, the wholly worthless Journal of Scientific Exploration (“original research on consciousness, quantum and biophysics, unexplained aerial phenomena, alternative medicine, new energy” etc. – new energy? really? And unexplained aerial phenomena, as in UFOs!). Other cited sources include a book, an “unpublished manuscript retrieved from http://www.southwoodhealing.info/p_d_f/scientificpaper/pdf” and so on.

Even Dean Radin gets a mention as a cited source.

So: the reason this comes to a different conclusion from mainstream medical analyses of distant healing, is that it includes sources that are typically excluded because they are credulous and not medically or scientifically robust. And, unsurprisingly, these are the ones with the most positive results.

Even then, it only finds a weak positive statistical effect: not one single slam-dunk proof of efficacy, not one single objectively repeatable phenomenon.

This, according to WDDTY, whose editor has a vested interest in the field, is “proof”. But there is a nod towards the reality-based contingent:

Not that we expect any of this to make much difference. The believers never needed such proof in the first place, while there will never be enough evidence to convince the non-believers. In fact, it doesn’t have a prayer’s chance to the sceptic.

dragon2The first part is true: belief never does require evidence, though believers often expend a prodigious amount of effort in the pseudoscientific pursuit of this chimaera.

As to sceptics, they will be persuaded as soon as suitably robust proof is provided.  We don’t believe that the proponents of reiki, “intention”, prayer and other forms of distant healing, with its manifest lack of any credible physical mechanism, have a dragon in their garage. They won’t persuade us with a pile of dodgy studies that concludes there’s a slightly elevated probability of a dragon, they could persuade us with a single well-designed, well-controlled, robust proof of a dragon.

Here’s what the conclusion of such a study might look like:

To our knowledge, no other objective, quantitative study involving more than a few (Therapeutic Touch) practitioners has been published, and no well-designed study demonstrates any health benefit from TT. These facts, together with our experimental findings, suggest that TT claims are groundless and that further use of TT by health professionals is unjustified.

It’s not difficult to design suitably objective tests of these claims. In fact, a nine-year-old could do it. And did.

Regulation: it’s only good when we like the outcome

April 2015’s issue of WDDTY opens with an editorial worthy of David Icke.

The editorial sets the scene with a laudatory description of the “grass-roots campaign” that led to the US Dietary Health and Supplements Education Act (DHSEA) – in reality an astroturfing job coordinated by industry figures such as Gerald Kessler, CEO of supplement maker Nature Plus, in support of a bill sponsored by Orrin Hatch and Tom Harkin. Hatch is deeply vested in the supplement industry and Harkin was the sponsor of what was originally called the Office of Alternative Medicine, which became NCCAM and then, following the Orwellian trend of branding the mixing of bullshit with science as “integrative”, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

It’s worth bearing in mind that if “Big Pharma” ever tried to do anything this brazen, WDDTY would be marching on Washington (Lynne keeps forgetting she lives in England) with pitchforks and burning torches. The DHSEA gave “Big Herba” carte blanche to market pharmacologically active products with no evidence of safety or efficacy. The free pass given to anything branded as natural is precisely the reason that Ernst Krebs branded the quack cancer cure laetrile – “the slickest, most sophisticated, and certainly the most remunerative cancer quack promotion in medical history” –  as “vitamin B17”.

But with WDDTY, every verb is irregular. They exploit, you cleverly bend the rules, I am a persecuted visionary.

This is merely stage dressing, though, for the thing that’s really got WDDTY’s goat this month: a raid on the factory producing the unproven “miracle cure” gCMAF. WDDTY fulminates against the “flak jackets” who confiscated 10,000 vials of the “naturally occurring” substance. Space was obviously insufficient to note that the substance “naturally occurs” in blood, and was being prepared in an unlicensed facility from blood products clearly marked “Not to be administered to humans or used in any drug products“.

Imagine what WDDTY would say if they found a drug being marketed without proper approval, in an unlicensed and sub-standard facility, using  raw materials marked unfit for human use.

You do have to imagine it, because this pretty much never happens outside the world of quackery.

Next, WDDTY lays into the killing of the Saatchi Bill, which claimed to protect patients by allowing responsible innovation but in fact would only have protected those engaging in irresponsible maverick acts, from any consequences. It was opposed by every major medical research body, by doctors, by lawyers who defend doctors, and in fact by pretty much anybody who actually knew what they were talking about. Needless to say WDDTY thought it was a marvellous idea: it would have protected the likes of Dr Barry Durrant-Peatfield, who they have previously supported, and probably would have spared Dr Sarah Myhill much angst.

In fact, it is remarkable how rarely even the most egregious quackery is shut down by the GMC.

The editorial concludes with a thought about creating a “DHSEA-style grass-roots movement” and putting the support of unproven quack remedies natural medicines on the political map in the UK. Of course they already are, but no doubt WDDTY columnist and supplement profiteer Rob Verkerk will be right there watering the grass.

In the real world, whether a thing is natural or not is of no consequence. It’s either a medicine, in which case it should be regulated, or it’s not, and should not be sold as one.