Integrative Care
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Consumers Suffer As CAM Slips Through The Cracks

13 September, 2013 by David Finer

         Complementary and alternative medicine slips through the cracks of the government agencies, and consumers have to pay. That is why there is a need for sceptics´and consumer organizations.

Molecular cell biologist Professor Dan Larhammar, Uppsala University focused on ineffective and fraudulent alternatives in a lecture on the eve of the 15th European Sceptics Congress in Stockholm recently.

The topic was ”news and trends in alternative medicine”, the venue the Workers’ Educational Association ABF in a room named after legendary Social Democratic Prime Minister Olof Palme, who was assassinated on the very same street in 1986. The Palme Hall, which takes about 80 people, was full.

Dan Larhammar is a well-known academic critic of CAM on the Swedish scene, and a well-established scientist in his field. He is not a clinician. His background is in pharmacy and he holds the chair in molecular cellular biology at Uppsala University. For five years he was also the chairperson of the Swedish Sceptics Association VoF, the organizer of the congress.

A Bunch of Bluffs
As the title of his lecture suggests, it drew on a selection of alternative methods, a bunch of supposed bluffs described as being of questionable efficacy and unethically marketed, which Larhammar wanted to warn his public against. 

A laudable ambition. However, those individuals who may have ventured out that evening to obtain a balanced and comprehensive picture of a multi-faceted field must certainly have been disappointed.

In the absence of what they regard as adequate and consistent control by government authorities, Larhammar and the Swedish Sceptics Association see as their mission to warn and protect the general public. Against homeopathy for example.

According to rules of the European Union – which Sweden is bound to follow – homeopathic remedies count as pharmaceutical drugs which must be registererd with the Swedish Medical Products Agency. MPA does not, however, assess efficacy, something Larhammar finds troubling.

-It is remarkable that our authorities allow manufacturers of homeopathic preparations to lie on their packaging. Naming a certain plant in the text for example is fraudulent marketing, when there may not be a single molecule of active substance left in the remedy, he said.

Consumers Let Down
Larhammar says the authorities let the consumers down.

– Complementary and alternative medicine slips between the cracks of agencies like the National Board of Health and Welfare, the Police, the National Food Agency, and the Medical Product Agency. The Swedish Consumer Agency for example only has two people who devote themselves to monitoring these productes. That is inadequate.  Consumers end up without protection in that grey area. Hence the need for skeptics and consumer organisations.

To provide a general perspective, Larhammar simply refers to the 2008 book Trick or Treatment by professor Edzard Ernst and science writer Simon Singh (also available in Swedish with a CAM-negative introduction by professor Martin Ingvar and docent Mats Lekander at Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Karolinska Institutet).

When the book was published, the company marketed it as the ”definitive” work in the field, and Larhammar appears to agree with the assessment. Ernst has some 1000 published studies to his name, many of them reviews of other people´s work.

– It´s my favourite book to give away as a present, he says.

In common with Ernst, Larhammar writes off almost the whole CAM area as unproven and if tested, ineffective. Evidence is lacking for most methods, he explains, pointing to Ernst´s ”careful scrutiny”.

– Most high-quality studies conclude that there is no difference from placebo, Larhammar says.

Sceptics´ Want New Positive Image
As I wrote in our first report from the sceptics congress, the Swedish organizer PJ Råsmark went on record as saying that he was unhappy with the image of the sceptics as just being dull and critical.

They wish to promote an image of also being educators in critical thinking and entertainers, as evidenced by the predominance of various magicians at the congress. Apart from providing comic relief from more conventional lectures, the conjurers – some of whom revealed the mechanics behind the magic – are meant to make us realize how our senses fool us all the time, e.g., about alternative medicine.

Maybe other public shenanigans by the skeptics can also be interpreted as attempts to improve their image. Like the ”collective suicide” orchestrated by Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang who together with some collaborators took an ”overdose” of homeopathic remedies during the high-power Summer week of political debates and media attention in Almedalen on the island of Gotland in 2011. Tasteless or funny? Decide for yourself. Anyhow, the point was to prove that  homeopathic remedies are ineffective. After all, the participants survived.

Obscurantists Told Telephatically
In the part of his lecture on the activities of the Swedish Sceptics Association, Larhammar mentions the ”awards” issued for public educator and ”obscurantist” of the year, respectively. The obscurantist awards are handed out to an individual  or legal entity who ”in Sweden during the year, voluntarily or by serious negligence, has contributed to creating confusion and lack of clarity as to the methods and results of science. In particular, we prioritize actions which promote a belief in authorities and an uncritical attitude towards statements made in the name of science” (from the homepage of the Swedish Skeptics Association). Critics of the obscurantist awards have described them as a form as mobbing and persecution of dissidents. But Larhammar says:

– We have to hand out these awards. Unfortunately, they are necessary to expose impostors.

Then he delivers the punch-line.

– The recipients are not even told over the phone. We let them know telepathically. Actually, it has worked every year.

Pulls Out Hitchens´ Razor
Finally, Larhammar pulls out the late Brittish writer and thinker Christopher Hitchens conceptual ”razor”, based on the latin sentence ”Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur”: ”What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence”.

          –  So it is not up to us scientists to run around trying to counter false statements. The burden of proof lies squarely on those who make the fraudulent assertions, professor Dan Larhammar concluded.

David Finer


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