Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Friday, February 18, 2005

Fifth World Skeptics Congress

Here are some excellent quotes from the end of the following article:

In the Land of Galileo, Fifth World Skeptics Congress Solves Mysteries, Champions Scientific Outlook (Skeptical Inquirer January/February 2005)

The conference concluded with a lively session of critical examinations of evidence about alternative medicine. A few excerpts:

Edzard Ernst (Professor of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, U.K.) On herbal remedies: “We have convincing positive data for nine herbal remedies (especially St. John’s Wort, for mild to moderate depression), but not thousands [as frequently claimed].”

On acupuncture: “There is limited evidence that acupuncture is better than no treatment at all. There is inconclusive evidence that acupuncture is better than a placebo.”

On spiritual healing: “The majority of rigorous trials show no effect beyond placebo.”

Ernst’s conclusion: “High quality research is scarce. Bias is rife. For some CAM [Complementary and Alternative Medicine] treatments the risk/benefit ratio is positive. But for most, we don’t know.”

Barry Beyerstein (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia): “The curriculum of the Dominion Herbal College in Vancouver—the leading college of herbalism in North America—exhibits every characteristic of pseudoscience in [CSICOP Fellow and McGill University philosophy professor] Mario Bunge’s list” (Bunge, “What Is Pseudoscience?” Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1984).

Riccardo Lucio (University of Florence): “Homeopathy is useful. . . . It is useful to the industry, to the sellers, and to the homeopaths. But it is highly questionable if it is of use to patients.”

Wallace Sampson (professor of medicine, Stanford, and editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine) gave a blunt assessment of what he calls “the political takeover in the U.S.” by alternative medicine.

“Never in the history of medicine has there been anything like this before,” he said. “It is an organized invasion of pseudoscience into the scientific edifice of medicine. It is pervasive, surreptitious, and purposeful. It is not a conspiracy; it is simply the way people act in groups.”

How do they do it? By using the “language of distortion” (alternative medicine instead of quackery or pseudoscience) and by demeaning science (postmodernism and relativism), he said. Proponents’ invention of language is calculated to produce a positive response. He said they have become astute in what he called “info-ganda,” the combination of information and propaganda. They have been effective in manipulating opinion in nonprofit foundations, the news media, books, and even the medical press, which “has a bias against publishing negative articles.” They have found abundant sources of funding both from government (especially in the U.S., through the support of key congressional leaders) and from spiritual/ religious organizations. He sees the problem getting worse, not better.

Silvio Garattini, professor of pharmacology and director of the Mario Negri Institute in Milan, summed up the session. “I wonder if by using gentler terms like alternative medicine and complementary medicine, we are disserving science,” he said. “‘Quackery’ and ‘fakery’” is what we are talking about. “We must use what has proved to be effective.”

And he spoke of the frustrating illogic of homeopathy. Its remedies are “all the same and contain nothing. How can you test that?” The burden of proof is on the homeopathic community to provide proof that its remedies are efficacious, he said. “But they are not willing.”

In his concluding remarks, Paul Kurtz called the conference “inspiring.” He lamented the escape from reason in the health fields, among others. “Not believing in things without evidence is still a radical thesis,” he said. “We are still attempting to hold the torch of scientific reason and inquiry.” He said there are still many “committed to the Enlightenment” but the “danger that we will move away from the scientific outlook is very real. . . . We have a set of ideals. These ideals are very important, and we need to keep the torch of reason lit.”