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Alternative medicine on CBC – DC's Improbable Science

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Thursday 24 Jan.

One of the original reasons for going to North America was an invitation from the Toronto Secular Alliance and Center for Inquiry. The talk for them was given a lot of publicity, for example here and here and from the totally admirable Orac.

Toronto seems to be no worse than anywhere else when it comes to delusional thinking about medicine. It is, of course, the home of Ryerson University, the place that produced one of the most outrageous pieces of postmodernist nonsense on record. But when this sort of thing gets into really good universities, it is more worrying.

As a result of the publicity there was some media coverage (and a record 7109 hits on this site on Sunday).

Friday 25th January, Reception and talk: Center for Inquiry. Science in an Age of Endarkenment: Some Examples from Scientific Fraud, Quackery, Religion and University Politics

An interview to the National Post (a newish right-of-centre national Canadian paper that was founded by the now-notorious Conrad Black). It was interesting that the reporter had views not unlike my own about the rise of the MBA mentality. That, he said, was what gave us Enron. The article appeared on page 3 of the National Post on Saturday 26 January under the heading “Anti-Nutty Professor” (or download newspaper version as pdf file).

Friday morning was spent at CBC recording with Michael Enright, for the Sunday Edition.

The interview was broadcast on Sunday morning (28 Jan) and elicited a lot of correspondence. CBC made it available as a podcast which can be downloaded from CBC here. The endarkenment interview was the last 22 minutes (out of 64 minutes) [play the interview here (mp3, 20 Mb)].


Sunday Edition: the follow-upThe week following this CBC show, the backlash started. The Sunday Edition wrote

“A stirred-up hornet’s nest is a mild disturbance compared to the firestorm we unleashed last week over my conversation with Dr. David Colquhoun. Dr. Colquhuon [sic] is a gangly, pipe-puffing British pharmacologist who thinks all alternative medicine, all of it, is a fraud perpetrated by quacks. But he went further, somehow suggesting that those who believe in it probably supported Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the Ayatollah Khomeini. He pooh-poohed acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, even vitamins.

Well, his remarks opened the floodgates of listener mail, screaming for Dr. Colquhoun’s head on a pike. In a few moments, alternative or complimentary [sic] medicine strikes back. With the help of two experts, we will try to give the other side of contentious Colquhounism.”

The programme for 3 Feb 2008 started with a few emails from listeners, mainly of the “homeopathy cured my granny” type. Nothing of much significance there. But then Enright interviewed Dugald Seely of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine and Dr. Kien Trinh of the DeGroote School of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton. You can download the podcast here.

The flat earth problem.

Michael Enright was a good interviewer, but Sunday Edition suffers, like the BBC, from a problem. It is admirable that CBC, like the BBC, should strive to be ‘fair and balanced’, but it is not always easy to see what that means in practice. Is it fair and balanced to give equal time to people who think that the earth is flat and those who think it is spherical (OK, an oblate ellipsoid)? Perhaps, but it also
quite misleading because it can easily convey a very distorted idea of the balance of informed opinion. In this case the flat-earthers are the homeopaths and other alternative medicine advocates. That would not matter so much if the interviewers had enough knowledge of the subject to pin down the falt-earth advocates with the sort of penetrating questions that people like John Humphrys (of the BBC’s Today programme) are so very good at. When it comes to science, though, the flat-earthers tend to get away with murder, and the public can easily be left with a very distorted view. Which “expert” should they believe? If I had been given the option, I would have loved to debate the problems of alternative medicine directly with Trinh and Seely I could have asked then a few questions that Enright missed.

Let’s take a look at what happened at the follow-up.

Quackery at McMaster University

McMaster is one of many universities in North America that has chosen to betray the intellectual tradition of the enlightenment by buying into superstition (see the roll of shame here). The ‘contemporary medical acupuncture program appears to run under the aegis of the anaesthesia
department, though the fact that is doen’t appear on the department’s front page suggests there may be some embarrassment about it. The medical acupuncture program itself, has separate web pages which don’t seem to be on the McMaster server at all (they are on a private server, ThePlanet.com Internet Services, Inc.

As so often, these pages pay lip service to an ‘evidence based’ or ‘scientific’ approach, while doing nothing of the sort. In his CBC interview Kien Trinh agreed (twice) with my contention that trials had shown that it doesn’t matter where you put the needles. But then he failed totally to draw the obvious conclusion that ‘meridians’ are mumbo jumbo. He went right on taking the conventional mystical view of meridians and “energy” flow. Like most proponents of alternative medicine, Trinh seems to live in some sort of parallel universe in which the normal rules of logic don’t apply.

On wouldn’t expect regular anaesthetists to accept this sort of mystical nonsense, but it seems one would be wrong. When I wrote to the Chair of the Department of Anesthesia, at McMaster to ask about their relationship with acupuncturists there was no hint of embarrassement. Dr Norman Buckley, BA (Psych), MD, FRCPC, wrote

“It operates under the principles of evidence based medicine, and relates the concepts raised by the Acupuncture/traditional Chinese medicine to physiology anatomy et as it is more usually taught in Western schools.”

That would be all very well if it were true, but it simply isn’t true. The evidence just isn’t there, and the departments involved make no serious attempts to get evidence. In a later letter, Dr Buckley seems to acknowledge that it may be all placebo, but seems reluctant to offend anyone by saying so. That, I suspect, is how quackery has gained such a foothold.

It is good to keep an open mind, but if it is too open your brains fall out. Or, in another variant, if it is too open, someone will fill it with trash.

One looks in vain on Trinh’s web site for any good evidence. They quote approvingly the conclusion of a 1997 NIH Consensus statement that says “There is sufficient evidence of acupuncture’s value to expand its use into conventional medicine and to encourage further studies of its physiology and clinical value.”, but forget to mention that this document is headed “This statement is more than five years old and is provided solely for historical purposes.”. The department doesn’t seem to do much original research, just to write endless reviews of other peoples’ work. The reviews aren’t too bad, and mostly they come to the right conclusion, that there is not enough evidence to come to firm conclusions. The difference from science is that this doesn’t dent their confidence for a moment. A typical sort of conclusion seems to be

Elbow pain. A review by Green et al. concluded “needle acupuncture [is] of short-term benefit with respect to pain, but this finding [is] based on the results of two small trials, the results of which [are] not able to be combined in metaanalysis.”

The results of thousands of years experience with acupuncture seem to be pretty pathetic so far..

Quackery at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM)

Unlike McMaster, CCNM isn’t a proper university, though nonetheless is hands out ‘doctorates’. Dugald Seely’s contribution was interesting insofar as he admitted that there was a lot of fraud and unjustified claims in the alternative medicine industry (never forget there are megabucks involved). What he didn’t explain was how he himself could be distinguished from the frauds. The problem, as always is the second-rate research that goes on in this area.
Take one of Seely’s papers, Adaptogenic Potential of a Polyherbal Natural Health Product: Report
on a Longitudinal Clinical Trial
. Is only too typical: a small non-randomised, open-label (not blind) “trial” of a complex herbal mixture on 17 patients. The conclusion was, as it almost always is,

“Further research using a randomized controlled design is necessary to confirm the findings from this pilot study.”

In other words, no conclusion at all. Why is it that the proper trial never seems to appear? Could it be that naturopaths, and the wealthy industry behind them, are afraid to do proper trials? That is certainly the impression they give.

One way in which the alternative medicine industry operates is to invent new words with ill-defined meanings (and Big Pharma does it too). In case you were wondering about the word “adaptogen” it is defined as “Essentially the adaptogen supports the body’s ability to ‘adapt’ ideally to its environment. Essentially the adaptogen supports the body’s ability to ‘adapt’ ideally to its environment. ”

Whatever that means.

The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine offers the following “therapies”.

  • acupuncture/Asian medicine
  • botanical medicine
  • physical medicine (massage, hydrotherapy, etc.)
  • clinical nutrition
  • homeopathic medicine
  • lifestyle counseling

Well, nothing wrong with nutrition and lifestyle counseling as long as the claims aren’t exaggerated. But, as always, the claims that are made are vastly exaggerated. For example they claim

Homeopathic remedies are particularly effective for:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • allergies
  • infections
  • gynecological concerns
  • skin conditions
  • digestive problems
  • chronic and acute conditions including colds and flu

These claims are simply not true, in my view. If you don’t believe me, check NELCAM (the NHS Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialist Library). This is written by advocates of alternative medicine, yet it finds no convincing evidence for effectiveness of homeopathy in any of the conditions listed above.

Or, even more remarkably, from a report in Newsweek.

“Dr. Jack Killen, acting deputy director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, says homeopathy “goes beyond current understanding of chemistry and physics.” He adds: “There is, to my knowledge, no condition for which homeopathy has been proven to be an effective treatment.”

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has, incidentally, spent almost one billion US$ billion of US taxpayers’ money and has come up with next-to-nothing useful.

So the claims made by the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine are not backed up even by people who are directly involved in alternative medicine You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that the medicine contains no medicine.

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7 Responses to Alternative medicine on CBC

  • I was surprised to see Dugald Seely even had publications. What kind of peer review would allow studies like his pass through. Then I read this on the Can J Clin Pharmacol. website:
    “In April 2004, The Canadian Journal of Clinical Pharmacology was innovative in becoming one of the first peer review”. Why start your own journal, there are plenty of good ones out there already?

    Here is a description of the leader of the journal Dr. Koren:
    “He serves as the Chair of the NIH review panel for Obstetric Pharmacology Research Units, and The Hospital for Sick Children”‘s Foundation Scientific panel on pediatric Complementary and Alternative Medicine”
    Sounds ok until you get to the alternative part .

  • Good heavens! You are right. About half the papers in the current Canadian Journal of Clinical Pharmacology are herbal. and several have both Seely and Koren among the authors. None of them contains any original data. What’s going on in Canadian pharmacology?

  • Hmmm…

    Would that be THE Gideon Koren? Dr Koren has an interesting history which You can read more about in Nature Medicine here. None of this relates to his interest in herbals medicines, but you might feel it, as the lawyers say, “goes to character”.

    Incidentally, the full 550-odd pages of the Canadian AUT’s report on the “Nancy Olivieri Affair” can be found online, for anyone especially interested in the “interface” between commercial sponsorship and academic freedom.

  • Tnanks for spotting the connection Dr Aust. Your links make interesting reading. I suppose these are just more consequences of adopting the WalMart model for universities.

  • I’m starting to think that the homeopaths and the rest of the CAM lot are in the midst of a messy divorce. This Dr Killen fellow quoted above seems to be saying homeopathy is about as useful a chocolate teapot – and he’s a CAM practitioner. In the context of the society of homeopaths refusing to get involved with Ofquack (sorry, natural healthcare council) one has to wonder if the homeopaths are getting to out-there even for the other peddlers of woo?

  • I’m reading Snake Oil Science by R. Barker Bausell (Oxford UP 2007). Quite an insightful read.

    Keep up the good work, DC!

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