Imagine the following:
A drug company promoting a drug for back pain conducts a blinded clinical trial in which patients receive either 1) the drug, 2) a placebo sugar pill that looks the same as the drug or 3) nothing. The results from the trial show that patients who receive both 1 + 2 show more relief from back pain than those receiving no treatment but there is no significant difference between the effect of the placebo pill and the real drug.
Now imagine a newspaper article reporting on the research chose the headline ‘Scientists find new drug can help to relieve chronic back pain’ followed by a glowing report of how the drug has proven to be effective in treating back pain complete with pleased quotes from the trial authors.
See the problem here? The drug was proven in a clinical trial to be no more effective than an inert sugar pill and yet it is being promoted in the newspaper and by the trial authors as if the trial showed that it is an effective treatment.
This is exactly what happened yesterday when The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mirror published extremely complementary articles about a recent trial of acupuncture for chronic back pain.
I suppose the first thing I should make clear is that the following post is my opinion, it does contain facts, but overall the post should be regarded as being mostly about my opinion of those facts rather than simply a collection of facts devoid of my personal opinions. As such I would think it constitutes commentary on a current event. I would normally think that such things go without saying but in light of today’s events I’m not so sure.
Today, I attended the preliminary hearing for the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) vs. Simon Singh case at the (discussed previously). This case is concerned with an article Singh wrote for the Guardian over a year ago and whether or not his comments in the article constitute libel against the BCA.
The specific paragraph that the BCA claim is based around is the following (and in particular the bolded phrases):
You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.
On my way to work in the morning I jump on the bus and in a matter of minutes I pass Dr. Q’s Chinese medical centre. With promotial signs galore hanging from the window they proudly proclaim that whether my problem be acne, erectile disfunction or hairloss Dr. Q’s medical centre has a Chinese herbal remedy guaranteed to sort the issue, and if that doesn’t work, well there’s always the option of a course of acupuncture treatments which will apparently do just as well.
A few minutes more on my bus journey, and I come to ‘Tony’s natural food & organic cafe’ which explains in it’s takeaway menu that:
There are two oceans of water in the body; one ocean is held inside the cells of the body, and the other ocean is held outside the cells. Good health depends on a most delicate balance between the volume of these oceans, and this balance is achieved by salt- unrefined sea salt.
A frequent point that comes up in most discussions of alternative medicine is- what’s the harm? So what if they don’t have any real evidence that they work? If people want to get a nice foot massage at a refloxology session or take homeopathic pills when they get a cold is that really so bad?
My general response to such points is that I agree that, generally speaking, most people in the West who make use of alternative medicine treatments aren’t really doing any harm. In fact I would go so far as to say that in a fair amount of cases the treatments are probably beneficial to the individual due to a combination of the placebo effect and relaxation. The problems come however when we look further afield than those using alternative medicine as a complementary system of medicine for minor health problems.
Simon Singh is a British science journalist who aside from being a great populariser of science also happens to be the co-author of one of my favourite books ‘Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial‘. He is also currently being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA).
The BCA took exception not at his book, wherein he discussed chiropractic medicine at some length- it’s history, it’s clinical evidence and it’s problems- but at an article (and in particluar one paragraph) he wrote in April 2008 for the Guardian’s website (ironically titled ‘comment is free’). The article has since been removed from the Guardian’s website, however, a copy is now being hosted on a Russian server here (and it makes a good read!).