I was on BBC Wales yesterday, representing the ‘other side’ in a debate with Simon Singh, who was plugging the book he has recently co-authored with Edzard Ernst called Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial.
In a stunt redolent of James Randi, the magician-cum-quackbuster, the twosome have offered anyone £10,000 if they can prove that homeopathy works.
Many of you may be familiar with Edvard Ernst. Once receiving the UK’s first chair of Complementary Medicine at Peninsula University, Ernst, as Robert Verkerk, director of Alliance for Natural health puts it, set about firmly establishing himself ‘as one of CAM’s biggest detractors.” At the European Skeptics Congress in 2003, for instance, Ernst gave the keynote address.
Ernst and Singh’s usual M.O. is to combine a mismash of disparate studies into one ‘meta-analysis’ – a questionable methodology shown to have severe limitations with conventional medicine — and then to hack and slice away any studies that do not fit their own rigid criteria.
For instance, in such a review of herbal medicine, they began with 1345 peer-reviewed studies, and by the time they were done they’d rejected all but three. From these three studies, Ernst believed it possible to denounce all of herbal medicine, including Chinese herbal medicine and Ayurvedic herbal medicine, as having ‘no convincing evidence that it is effective in any indication’ particularly ‘in light of its high potential for adverse effects’.
Aside from the fact that randomized, controlled trials of many types of alternative medicine do exist (of 32 such studies of homeopathy, 81 per cent show a beneficial effect), the real problem here is Ernst’s and Singh’s attempt to use a tool of conventional medicine to study alternative medicine.
Alternative medicine doesn’t simply use radically different therapies; it rests on a radically different theory of biology – indeed a radically different world view.
Conventional medicine conceives of the body as individual entity— a machine. A broken part gets repaired in isolation through a chemical agent. Virtually all of alternative medicine understands the body only in relationship – to others, to the environment, to its healers, indeed to the world.
Ernst acknowledges that besides the specific effects of any therapy, a patient’s expectation of benefit, his behavioural changes, the intentions those around the patient, including his healer, for instance, all may have an effect on a favourable outcome.
But to dismiss this as a ‘placebo effect’ is to miss the point of alternative healing. Most alternative practitioners understand that the belief and intentions of the healers, the healee and those surrounding them all play a role.
To heal a symptom, the entire person must be healed — in relationship to his environment. Homeopathy doesn’t seek to fix the broken wheel; it seeks to fix the car, the garage and the street where it is parked.
During our radio show, a young man called in. He’d been covered in psoriasis in his teens. After a course of acupuncture his skin was 80 per cent improved. Although he’d had to abandon treatment, this improvement remained over the years.
Ah, but it probably was your age – a lot of teenagers have conditions that clear up by themselves, said Singh.
No, replied the young man. It definitely was the acupuncture.
Now, what cured him? Was it expectation of benefit, the healing talents of the acupuncturist, the needles themselves, the atmosphere at the clinic, or the prayers of his mother?
In our view, all played a part and indeed the intentions were probably the most important aspect of treatment.
As we are witnessing in our workshops, healing is an alchemical process between intender and receiver. The intentions of both matter.