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NZMJ – DC's Improbable Science

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Chiropractors are getting very touchy indeed, all over the world. And no wonder, because their claims are being exposed as baseless as never before, in the wake of their attempts to stifle criticism by legal action..

In March, Shaun Holt appeared on Breakfast TV in New Zealand. Holt has done a lot of good work on TV in debunking some of the preposterous claims made by quacks. See him on YouTube.

This time he talked about chiropractic. Here is the video.

One could argue that he was over generous to chiropractic, especially when talking about their effectiveness in treating low back pain. He said, quite rightly, that chiropractors are no better than physiotherapists at treating low back pain.

But a recent trial suggests that neither are much good. “A randomised controlled trial of spinal manipulative therapy in acute low back pain” (Juni et al., 2009 in the BMJ; see also coverage in Pulse). This trial compared standard care with standard care plus spinal manipulative therapy (SMT). The results were negative, despite the fact that this sort of A + B vs B design is inherently biassed in favour of the treatment (see A trial design that generates only ”positive” results, Ernst & Lee 2008, Postgrad Med J.).

"SMT was performed by a specialist in manual medicine, chiropractice and rheumatology (GH), a specialist in physical medicine (DV) or an osteopath (RvB), all proficient in SMT."

"Conclusions: SMT is unlikely to result in relevant early pain reduction in patients with acute low back pain."

Admittedly, the trial was quite small (104 patients, 52 in each group) so it will need to be confirmed. but the result is entirely in line with what we knew already.

It also adds to the evidence that the recommendation by NICE of SMT by chiropractors constitutes their biggest failure ever to assess evidence properly. If NICE don’t amend this advice soon, they are in danger of damaging their hitherto excellent record.

Despite the moderate tone and accuracy of what Holt said on TV, the New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association made a formal complaint. That is what they like to do, as I learned recently, to my cost. It is so much easier than producing evidence.

Quite absurdly the New Zealand Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) has upheld some of the complaints. Their judgement can be read here.

The BSA consists of four people, two lawyers and two journalists. So not a trace of scientific expertise among them. Having people like that judging the claims of chiropractors makes as much sense as having them judged by Mr Justice Eady. They seem to be the sort of people who think that if there is a disagreement, the truth must lie half-way between the opposing views.

One of the BSA members, Tapu Misa, has used her newspaper column to quote approvingly the views of the notorious Dr Mercola web site on flu prevention “Your best defence, it says, is to eat right, get lots of sleep, avoid sugar and stress, load up on garlic, Vitamin D and krill oil”. (Snake oil is said to be good too.)    There are some odd attitudes to science in some of her other columns too (e.g. here and here). Not quite the person to be judging the evidence for and against chiropractic, I think.

In fact the TV show in question was more than fair to chiropractors. It adopted the media’s usual interpretation of fair and balanced: equal time for the flat earthers. A Chiropractor was invited to reply to Holt’s piece.  Here he is.

The chiropractor, Doug Blackbourn, started very plausibly, though a tendency to omit every third syllable made transcription hard work. He established that if you cut yourself you get better (without any help). He established that nerves run down the spinal cord. So far, so good. But then he quickly moved on to the usual flights of fancy.

"We have two premises. The body heals itself and the nervous system runs the body. Now the nervous system runs the body, travels down through the spinal cord so chiropractic is not based on the belief that, you know, energy flows, it’s based on the fact that your nervous system runs the body and [inaudible] affects the overall health of the body"

This statement is totally vague. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the main question, can chiropractors do anything useful. It is sheer flannel.

We’re seeing people, heck, diabetes. I had a quadriplegic come in one time for adjustment, we’ve got stroke people, we’ve got all sorts of conditions. We’re not treating the condition, We’re allowing, checking the spine to see if there’s any interference there that will slow the body down"

“Interference”? “slowing the body down”? These are utterly meaningless phrases that simply serve to distract from the only question that matters.

"Chiropractice is the most safest [sic] profession to go to to get your spine adjusted"

Hmm I thought it was the only job that uses the word ‘adjustment’.

Worst of all was his response to a question about asthma.

Presenter: "So chiropractors are not out there claiming they will cure asthma for example?". Chiropractor: "No"

This is simply untrue, both in New Zealand and in the UK. For a start, just look at what Blackbourn’s own web site says about asthma.

"The challenge, of course, with allergy and asthma medication is there is no end-point. There is no cure. Asthma and allergies, for the most part, are lifelong conditions requiring lifelong medication. Might there be a better way, an alternative solution?

“Alternative” is the key word. Medical treatment is designed to combat symptoms, and is successful to a certain extent with allergies and asthma. Underlying causes are not addressed, however, and symptoms continue year after year. What else might be done?

Enter chiropractic care. Chiropractic health care, with its unique comprehensive approach, is able to offer positive benefit to a variety of conditions and ailments. In the case of allergies and asthma, these “hypersensitivity conditions” may respond well to therapy designed to normalize the body’s flow of nerve signals. To use a metaphor, chiropractic treatment removes roadblocks to the body’s natural healing abilities. Restoring these imbalances may help reduce such hypersensitivity reactions."

Blackbourn’s web site describes him thus

"As a Doctor of Chiropractic, Dr. Doug Blackbourn . . ."

But the qualifications of “Dr” Blackbourn are B.App.Sc (Chiro) M.N.Z.C.A , the same as those of “Dr” Brian Kelly.

After a performance like this, perhaps someone should submit a complaint to the New Zealand Broadcasting Standards Authority.

After all, I notice that they have dismissed complaints from one chiropractor, Sean Parker, after a TV programme looked at the business practices of his private chiropractic practice, The Spinal Health Foundation. Perhaps the BSA understands business better than it understands science.


Is chiropractic crumbling in New Zealand? The New Zealand College of Chiropractic featured in my editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal, and in the fallout from that article, It’s principle, “Dr” Brian Kelly (B App Sci (Chiro)) seems to be getting desperate. His college is now canvassing for recruits in Canada. They are promised all the woo.

  • Subluxation centered techniques – Gonstead, Toggle Recoil, Thompson, Diversified
  • Traditional philosophy featuring vitalism and innate healing – congruent curriculum

Perhaps Canada is a good place to recruit, gven the $500 million class action being brought against chiropractors in Canada, after Sandra Nette became tetraplegic immediately after a chiropractor manipulated her neck, Canadian chiropractors must be looking for somewhere to hide.

Stuff and Nonsense. jdc described this story at the time the complaint was lodged.

Shaun Holt’s own blog follows the action.

New Zealand Doctor covers the story.

Bay of Plenty TimesBay researcher slams television complaint ruling

Jump to follow-up

In July 2008 I wrote an editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal (NZMJ), at the request of its editor.

The title was  Dr Who? deception by chiropractors.  It was not very flattering and it resulted in a letter from lawyers representing the New Zealand Chiropractic Association.  Luckily the editor of the NZMJ, Frank Frizelle, is a man of principle, and the legal action was averted. It also resulted in some interesting discussions with disillusioned chiropractors that confirmed one’s worst fears.  Not to mention revealing the internecine warfare between one chiropractor and another.

This all occurred before the British Chiropractic Association sued Simon Singh for defamation.  The strength of the reaction to that foolhardy action now has chiropractors wondering if they can survive at all.  The baselessness of most of their claims has been exposed as never before.  No wonder they are running scared.  The whole basis of their business is imploding.

Needless to say chiropractors were very cross indeed.  Then in February 2009 I had a polite email from a New Zealand chiropractor, David Owen, asking for help to find one of the references in the editorial.  I’d quoted Preston Long as saying

"Long (2004)7 said “the public should be informed that chiropractic manipulation is the number one reason for people suffering stroke under the age of 45.

And I’d given the reference as

7. Long PH. Stroke and spinal manipulation. J Quality Health Care. 2004;3:8–10

I’d found the quotation, and the reference, in Ernst’s 2005 article, The value of Chiropractic, but at the time I couldn’t find the Journal of Quality Healthcare.  I did find the same article on the web. At least the article had the same title, the same author and the same quotation.  But after finding, and reading, the article, I neglected to change the reference from J Quality Health Care to http://skepticreport.com/sr/?p=88.  I should have done so and for that I apologise.

When I asked Ernst about the Journal of Quality Healthcare, he couldn’t find his copy of the Journal either, but he and his secretary embarked on a hunt for it, and eventually it was found.

JQHC title

JQHC reference

It turns out that Journal of Quality Healthcare shut down in 2004, without leaving a trace on the web, or even in the British Library.  It was replaced by a different journal, Patient Safety and Quality Healthcare (PSQH)  A reprint was obtained from them.   It is indeed the same as the web version that I’d read, and it highlighted the quotation in question.

The reprint of the original article, which proved so hard to find, can be downloaded here.

JQHC quotation

The full quotation is this

"Sixty-two clinical neurologists from across Canada, all certified members of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, issued a warning to the Canadian public, which was reported by Brad Stewart, MD. The warning was entitled Canadian Neurologists Warn Against Neck Manipulation. The final conclusion was that endless non-scientific claims are being made as to the uses of neck manipulation(Stewart, 2003). They need to be stopped. The public should be informed that chiropractic manipulation is the number one reason for people suffering stroke under the age of 45."

I have often condemned the practice of citing papers without reading them (it is, of course, distressingly common), so I feel bad about this, though I had in fact read the paper in question in its web version. I’m writing about it because I feel one should be open about mistakes, even small ones.

I’m also writing about it because one small section of the magic medicine community seems to think they have nailed me because of it.  David Owen, the New Zealand chiropractor, wrote to the editor of the NZMJ, thus.

The quote [in question] is the public should be informed that chiropractic manipulation is the number one reason for people suffering stroke under the age of 45.

Long PH. Stroke and Manipulation. J Quality Health Care. 2004:3:8-10

This quote actually comes from the following blog article http://www.skepticreport.com/medicalquackery/strokespinal.htm [DC the URL is now http://skepticreport.com/sr/?p=88]

I have attached all my personal communications with Colquhoun. They demonstrate this is not a citation error. Prof Colquhoun believes the origin of the quote doesn’t matter because Long was quoting from a Canadian Neurologists’ report (this is also incorrect). As you can see he fails to provide any evidence at all to support the existance [sic] of the “J Quality Health Care.”
This would not be an issue at all if he had admitted it came from a blog site— but I guess the link would have eroded the credibility of the quote.

Colquhoun ‘s belief that my forwarding this complaint is me “resorting to threats” is the final nail in the coffin. If he had any leg to stand on where is the threat?

This may seem pedantic but it surely reflects a serious ethical breach. Is it acceptable to make up a reference to try and slip any unsupported statement into a “scientific” argument and thereby give it some degree of credibility?

Incidentally, at the end of the article, conflicts of interest are listed as none. As Colquhoun is a Professor of Pharmacology and much of his research funding no doubt comes from the pharmaceutical industry how can he have no conflict of interest with therapies that do not advocate the use of drugs and compete directly against the billions spent on pain medications each year?

If I may quote Colquhoun himself in his defence of his article (Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 05-September-2008, Vol 121 No 1281) I’ll admit, though, that perhaps ‘intellect’ is not what’s deficient in this case, but rather honesty.

David Owen 

Financial interests

Well, here is a threat: I’m exposed as a shill of Big Pharma.  ". . . much of his funding no doubt comes from the pharmaceutical industry".  I can’t count how many times this accusation has been thrown at me by advocates of magic medicine.  Oddly enough none of them has actually taken the trouble to find out where my research funding has come from.  None of them even knows enough about the business to realise the extreme improbability that the Pharmaceutical Industry would be interested in funding basic work on the stochastic properties of single molecules.  They fund only clinicians who can help to improve their profits, 

The matter of funding is already on record, but I’ll repeat it now.   The media ‘nutritional therapist’, Patrick Holford, said, in the British Medical Journal

“I notice that Professor David Colquhoun has so far not felt it relevant to mention his own competing interests and financial involvements with the pharmaceutical industry “

To which my reply was

” Oh dear, Patrick Holford really should check before saying things like “I notice that Professor David Colquhoun has so far not felt it relevant to mention his own competing interests and financial involvements with the pharmaceutical industry”. Unlike Holford, when I said “no competing interests”, I meant it. My research has never been funded by the drug industry, but always by the Medical Research Council or by the Wellcome Trust. Neither have I accepted hospitality or travel to conferences from them. That is because I would never want to run the risk of judgements being clouded by money. The only time I have ever taken money from industry is in the form of modest fees that I got for giving a series of lectures on the basic mathematical principles of drug-receptor interaction, a few years ago.”

I spend a lot of my spare time, and a bit of my own money, in an attempt to bring some sense into the arguments. The alternative medicine gurus make their livings (in some cases large fortunes) out of their wares.

So who has the vested interest?

Does chiropractic actually cause stroke?

As in the case of drugs and diet, it is remarkably difficult to be sure about causality. A patient suffers a vertebral artery dissection shortly after visiting a chiropractor, but did the neck manipulation cause the stroke? Or did it precipitate the stroke in somebody predisposed to one? Or is the timing just coincidence and the stroke would have happened anyway? There has been a lot of discussion about this and a forthcoming analysis will tackle the problem of causality head-on,

My assessment at the moment, for what it’s worth, is that there are some pretty good reasons to suspect that neck manipulation can be dangerous, but it seems that serious damage is rare.

In a sense, it really doesn’t matter much anyway, because it is now apparent that chiropractic is pretty well discredited without having to resort to arguments about rare (though serious) effects. There is real doubt about whether it is even any good for back pain (see Cochrane review), and good reason to think that the very common claims of chiropractors to be able to cure infant colic, asthma and so on are entirely, ahem, bogus.  (See also Steven Novella, ebm-first, and innumerable other recent analyses.)

Chiropractic is entirely discredited, whether or not it may occasionally kill people.

Complaint sent to UCL

I had an enquiry about this problem also from my old friend George Lewith.  I told him what had happened.  Soon after this, a complaint was sent to Tim Perry and Jason Clarke, UCL’s Director and Deputy Director of Academic Services. The letter came not from Lewith or Owen, but from Lionel Milgom.   Milgrom is well known in the magic medicine community for writing papers about how homeopathy can be “explained” by quantum entanglement.   Unfortunately for him, his papers have been read by some real physicists and they are no more than rather pretentious metaphors.  See, for example, Danny Chrastina’s analysis, and shpalman, here. Not to mention Lewis, AP Gaylard and Orac.

Dear Mr Perry and Mr Clark,

I would like to bring to your attention an editorial (below) that appeared in the most recent issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal. In it, one of your Emeritus Professors, David Colquhoun, is accused of a serious ethical breach, and I quote – “Is it acceptable to make up a reference to try and slip any unsupported statement into a “scientific” argument and thereby give it some degree of credibility?”

Professor Colquhoun is well-known for writing extensively and publicly excoriating many forms of complementary and alternative medicine, particularly with regard to the alleged unscientific nature and unethical behaviour of its practitioners. Professor Colquhoun is also a voluble champion for keeping the libel laws out of science.

While such activities are doubtlessly in accord with the venerable Benthamite liberal traditions of UCL, I am quite certain hypocrisy is not. And though Professor Colquhoun has owned up to his error, as the NZMJ’s editor implies, it leaves a question mark over his credibility. As custodians of the college’s academic quality therefore, you might care to consider the possible damage to UCL’s reputation of perceived professorial cant; emeritus or otherwise.

Yours Sincerely

Dr Lionel R Milgrom

So, as we have seen, the quotation was correct, the reference was correct, and I’d read the article from which it came   I made a mistake in citing the original paper rather than the web version of the same paper..

I leave it to the reader to judge whether this constitutes a "serious ethical breach", whether I’d slipped in an "unsupported statement", and whether it constitutes "hypocrisy"


It so happens that no sooner was this posted than there appeared Part 2 of the devastating refutation of Lionel Milgrom’s attempt to defend homeopathy, written by AP Gaylard. Thanks to Mojo (comment #2) for pointing this out.