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How To Create Medical Research To Support Bogus Therapies, In Nine Easy Steps

Twenty years ago I started my job as ‘Professor of Complementary Medicine’ at the University of Exeter and became a full-time researcher of all matters related to alternative medicine. One issue that was discussed endlessly during these early days was the question whether alternative medicine can be investigated scientifically. There were many vociferous proponents of the view that it was too subtle, too individualised, too special for that and that it defied science in principle. Alternative medicine, they claimed, needed an alternative to science to be validated. I spent my time arguing the opposite, of course, and today there finally seems to be a consensus that alternative medicine can and should be submitted to scientific tests much like any other branch of health care.

Looking back at those debates, I think it is rather obvious why apologists of alternative medicine were so vehement about opposing scientific investigations: they suspected, perhaps even knew, that the results of such research would be mostly negative. Once the anti-scientists saw that they were fighting a lost battle, they changed their tune and adopted science – well sort of: they became pseudo-scientists (‘if you cannot beat them, join them’). Their aim was to prevent disaster, namely the documentation of alternative medicine’s uselessness by scientists. Meanwhile many of these ‘anti-scientists turned pseudo-scientists’ have made rather surprising careers out of their cunning role-change; professorships at respectable universities have mushroomed. Yes, pseudo-scientists have splendid prospects these days in the realm of alternative medicine.

The term ‘pseudo-scientist’ as I understand it describes a person who thinks he/she knows the truth about his/her subject well before he/she has done the actual research. A pseudo-scientist is keen to understand the rules of science in order to corrupt science; he/she aims at using the tools of science not to test his/her assumptions and hypotheses, but to prove that his/her preconceived ideas were correct.

So, how does one become a top pseudo-scientist? During the last 20 years, I have observed some of the careers with interest and think I know how it is done. Here are nine lessons which, if followed rigorously, will lead to success (… oh yes, in case I again have someone thick enough to complain about me misleading my readers: THIS POST IS SLIGHTLY TONGUE IN CHEEK).

  1. Throw yourself into qualitative research. For instance, focus groups are a safe bet. This type of pseudo-research is not really difficult to do: you assemble about 5 -10 people, let them express their opinions, record them, extract from the diversity of views what you recognise as your own opinion and call it a ‘common theme’, write the whole thing up, and - BINGO! – you have a publication. The beauty of this approach is manifold: 1) you can repeat this exercise ad nauseam until your publication list is of respectable length; there are plenty of alternative medicine journals who will hurry to publish your pseudo-research; 2) you can manipulate your findings at will, for instance, by selecting your sample (if you recruit people outside a health food shop, for instance, and direct your group wisely, you will find everything alternative medicine journals love to print); 3) you will never produce a paper that displeases the likes of Prince Charles (this is more important than you may think: even pseudo-science needs a sponsor [or would that be a pseudo-sponsor?]).
  2. Conduct surveys. These are very popular and highly respected/publishable projects in alternative medicine – and they are almost as quick and easy as focus groups. Do not get deterred by the fact that thousands of very similar investigations are already available. If, for instance, there already is one describing the alternative medicine usage by leg-amputated police-men in North Devon, and you nevertheless feel the urge of going into this area, you can safely follow your instinct: do a survey of leg-amputated police men in North Devon with a medical history of diabetes. There are no limits, and as long as you conclude that your participants used a lot of alternative medicine, were very satisfied with it, did not experience any adverse effects, thought it was value for money, and would recommend it to their neighbour, you have secured another publication in an alternative medicine journal.
  3. Take a sociological, anthropological or psychological approach. How about studying, for example, the differences in worldviews, the different belief systems, the different ways of knowing, the different concepts about illness, the different expectations, the unique spiritual dimensions, the amazing views on holism – all in different cultures, settings or countries? Invariably, you will, of course, conclude that one truth is at least as good as the next. This will make you popular with all the post-modernists who use alternative medicine as a playground for getting a few publications out. This approach will allow you to travel extensively and generally have a good time. Your papers might not win you a Nobel prize, but one cannot have everything.
  4. Do a safety study. It could well be that, at one stage, your boss has a serious talk with you demanding that you start doing what (in his narrow mind) constitutes ‘real science’. He might be keen to get some brownie-points at the next RAE and could thus want you to actually test alternative treatments in terms of their safety and efficacy. Do not despair! Even then, there are plenty of possibilities to remain true to your pseudo-scientific principles. By now you are good at running surveys, and you could, for instance, take up your boss’ suggestion of studying the safety of your favourite alternative medicine with a survey of its users. You simply evaluate their experiences and opinions regarding adverse effects. But be careful, you are on somewhat thinner ice here; you don’t want to upset anyone by generating alarming findings. Make sure your sample is small enough for a false negative result, and that all participants are well-pleased with their alternative medicine. This might be merely a question of selecting your patients cleverly. The main thing is that your conclusion is positive. If you want to go the extra pseudo-scientific mile, mention in the discussion of your paper that your participants all felt that conventional drugs were very harmful.
  5. Publish case reports. If your boss insists you tackle the daunting issue of therapeutic efficacy, there is no reason to give up pseudo-science either. You can always find patients who happened to have recovered spectacularly well from a life-threatening disease after receiving your favourite form of alternative medicine. Once you have identified such a person, you write up her experience in much detail and call it a ‘case report’. It requires a little skill to brush over the fact that the patient also had lots of conventional treatments, or that her diagnosis was assumed but never properly verified. As a pseudo-scientist, you will have to learn how to discretely make such irritating details vanish so that, in the final paper, they are no longer recognisable. Once you are familiar with this methodology, you can try to find a couple more such cases and publish them as a ‘best case series’ – I can guarantee that you will be all other pseudo-scientists’ hero!
  6. Publish a case series. Your boss might point out, after you have published half a dozen such articles, that single cases are not really very conclusive. The antidote to this argument is simple: you do a large case series along the same lines. Here you can even show off your excellent statistical skills by calculating the statistical significance of the difference between the severity of the condition before the treatment and the one after it. As long as you show marked improvements, ignore all the many other factors involved in the outcome and conclude that these changes are undeniably the result of the treatment, you will be able to publish your paper without problems.
  7. Rig the study design. As your boss seems to be obsessed with the RAE and all that, he might one day insist you conduct what he narrow-mindedly calls a ‘proper’ study; in other words, you might be forced to bite the bullet and learn how to plan and run an RCT. As your particular alternative therapy is not really effective, this could lead to serious embarrassment in form of a negative result, something that must be avoided at all cost. I therefore recommend you join for a few months a research group that has a proven track record in doing RCTs of utterly useless treatments without ever failing to conclude that it is highly effective. There are several of those units both in the UK and elsewhere, and their expertise is remarkable. They will teach you how to incorporate all the right design features into your study without there being the slightest risk of generating a negative result. A particularly popular solution is to conduct what they call a ‘pragmatic’ trial, I suggest you focus on this splendid innovation that never fails to produce anything but cheerfully positive findings.
  8. Play with statistics until you get the desired result. It is hardly possible that this strategy fails – but once every blue moon, all precautions turn out to be in vain, and even the most cunningly designed study of your bogus therapy might deliver a negative result. This is a challenge to any pseudo-scientist, but you can master it, provided you don’t lose your head. In such a rare case I recommend to run as many different statistical tests as you can find; chances are that one of them will nevertheless produce something vaguely positive. If even this method fails (and it hardly ever does), you can always home in on the fact that, in your efficacy study of your bogus treatment, not a single patient died. Who would be able to doubt that this is a positive outcome? Stress it clearly, select it as the main feature of your conclusions, and thus make the more disappointing findings disappear.
  9. Create confirmatory studies that follow your rigged design and faulty statistics. Now that you are a fully-fledged pseudo-scientist who has produced one misleading or false positive result after the next, you may want a ‘proper’ confirmatory study of your pet-therapy. For this purpose run the same RCT over again, and again, and again. Eventually you want a meta-analysis of all RCTs ever published. As you are the only person who ever conducted studies on the bogus treatment in question, this should be quite easy: you pool the data of all your trials and, bob’s your uncle: a nice little summary of the totality of the data that shows beyond doubt that your therapy works. Now even your narrow-minded boss will be impressed.

These nine lessons can and should be modified to suit your particular situation, of course. Nothing here is written in stone. The one skill any pseudo-scientist must have is flexibility.

Every now and then, some smart arse is bound to attack you and claim that this is not rigorous science, that independent replications are required, that you are biased etc. etc. blah, blah, blah. Do not panic: either you ignore that person completely, or (in case there is a whole gang of nasty skeptics after you) you might just point out that:

  • your work follows a new paradigm; the one of your critics is now obsolete,
  • your detractors fail to understand the complexity of the subject and their comments merely reveal their ridiculous incompetence,
  • your critics are less than impartial, in fact, most are bought by BIG PHARMA,
  • you have a paper ‘in press’ that fully deals with all the criticism and explains how inappropriate it really is.

In closing, allow me a final word about publishing. There are hundreds of alternative medicine journals out there to chose from. They will love your papers because they are uncompromising promotional. These journals all have one thing in common: they are run by apologists of alternative medicine who abhor to read anything negative about alternative medicine. Consequently hardly a critical word about alternative medicine will ever appear in these journals. If you want to make double sure that your paper does not get criticised during the peer-review process (this would require a revision, and you don’t need extra work of that nature), you can suggest a friend for peer-reviewing it. In turn, you can offer to him/her that you do the same to him/her the next time he/she has an article to submit. This is how pseudo-scientists make sure that the body of pseudo-evidence for their pseudo-treatments is growing at a steady pace.


Dr. Ernst is a PM&R specialist and the author of 48 books and more than 1000 articles in the peer-reviewed medical literature. His most recent book, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial is available from amazon. He blogs regularly at and contributes occasionally to this blog.

Pox Parties: Half-Truths, Anecdotes, And Fear


There has been much abuzz about “pox parties” – the practice of parents getting a bunch of unvaccinated kids together with an infected one (pick one, really, though chicken pox is the focus of the recent article in Time) in the hope that their little sweethearts become ill and therefore “naturally” immune to the disease. This deliberate infection involves things as seemingly innocent as breathing the same air as the infected to the stomach-turning sharing of bodily fluids (Saliva lemonade, anyone?). To compound the issue, it seems that parents aren’t always taking into account how the viruses are transmitted, and end up trying oral transmission to  transmit a disease that is transmitted through the air. And yes, the whole thing is as stupid as it seems.

Given that the people partaking in these events have likely not vaccinated their children against anything else, these parties could be a source point for multiple highly contagious infections. Most of us have had chicken pox as children and don’t remember it fondly – now imagine having chicken pox with mumps, mono, and maybe a little hepatitis A to top it off. It is also easy to forget in Western luxury that these innocuous childhood illnesses are actually lethal. Just measles? Well, one death per 3000 measles infections might not seem like much, until you consider the fact that in 2008, 164,000 people died of the measles worldwide - approximately the same number of civilians that have died in the entire length of the current Iraq war. That’s an annual number, and it’s gone down by almost 80% over 10 years. How? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Skeptic North*

Analyzing Pseudoscience Can Aid In Improving Legitimate Scientific Research

While we frequently on SBM target the worst abuses of science in medicine, it’s important to recognize that doing rigorous science is complex and mainstream scientists often fall short of the ideal. In fact, one of the advantages of exploring pseudoscience in medicine is developing a sensitive detector for errors in logic, method, and analysis. Many of the errors we point out in so-called “alternative” medicine also crop up elsewhere in medicine – although usually to a much less degree.

It is not uncommon, for example, for a paper to fail to adjust for multiple analysis – if you compare many variables you have to take that into consideration when doing the statistical analysis, otherwise the probability of a chance correlation will be increased.

I discussed just last week on NeuroLogica the misapplication of meta-analysis – in this case to the question of whether or not CCSVI correlates with multiple sclerosis. I find this very common in the literature, essentially a failure to Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

The Most Popular Plastic Surgery Procedures By Age Group

The American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery publishes statistics every year indicating which cosmetic operations are on the rise. A journalist at the OC Register asked a group of plastic surgeons why this might be. Being that I am opinionated (why do you think I blog here,) I figured I’d take a shot at some of these:

I. Statistic: TEENS – Nosejobs and Otoplasty (commonly referred to as “ear pinning”) on the rise

Dr D: Part of the development of the teen psyche involves becoming aware of social norms. As they do this, they also become aware of differences and develop standards of beauty. Many of these teen nose jobs are justified as medically-needed, but appearance usually factors in. Otoplasty is a similarly social operation.

II. Statistic: YOUNG ADULTS – Breast implants. Ages 19-34. 166,000 a year. (ASAPS)

Dr D: “Beauty standards” are important motivators here as well. Young adults in the workplace (and social groups) see those around them doing these things and often being complimented. Some of these patients may also be seeking after childbirth “body repair.”

III. Statistic: EARLY MIDDLE AGE – Liposuction. Ages 35-50. 143,000 a year. (ASAPS)

Dr D: A slowing metabolism in this age group combined with more involved work schedules (with increased sedentary time) equals increased trouble “holding back the fat.” Liposuction is easy and can help with that. Add some post-pregnancy issues here as well.

IV. Statistic: YOUNG ADULTS – Botox. Ages 19-34. 371,000 a year. (ASAPS)

Dr D: The fad of Botox use in the really young is an advertising phenomenon as there is no good reason for young people to do this other than to “feel” hip.

My opinions of course. :)

*This blog post was originally published at Truth in Cosmetic Surgery*

The Art Of Misleading Statistics: Redefining Psychotherapy

This month’s Psychiatric Times continues the discussion [registration required :-( ] about the NY Times article on psychotherapy that Dinah and readers discussed on April 9. This time, our colleague, Ron Pies MD, authored this article which deconstructs the myths perpetrated in the NYT article, which interviewed a med check doctor who found it “sad” that his patients found him to be important to them in their lives (read the article for the full flavor).

I’m glad that Ron pointed out (as we have) that the 2008 Mojtabai and Olfson article — which implied that only 11% of US outpatient psychiatrists provide psychotherapy — was a misleading statistic. Why? Because they did not consider brief psychotherapy sessions (30 minutes or less) to be classified as “psychotherapy” for their session. Thus, a 90807 (45-50 min) is considered psychotherapy, but a 90805 (20-30 min) would not be considered so, even though the AMA’s CPT manual defines it as psychotherapy. Also, brief and supportive forms of psychotherapy are often given even when only a “med check” is billed. Nonetheless, the sound bite from that article has been: “Only 11% of psychiatrists do psychotherapy”. It just ain’t true. As Mark Twain said, ”There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.“—–

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

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