homeopathy
Experts have condemned clinical trials of homeopathy.Darren Cullen/Flickr

Clinical trials of alternative medicines, such as homeopathy and Reiki, are essentially testing if magic works, experts have said.

Writing in the Cell Press journal Trends in Molecular Medicine, David Gorski of Wayne State University School of Medicine and Steven Novella of Yale University call for an end to clinical trials of these treatments.

The authors are both editors for Science-Based Medicine, a platform dedicated to exploring the relationship between science and medicine.

They say that for the past 20 years, alternative and complementary medical treatments have been embraced, despite relying on dubious science.

"We hope this will be the first of many opportunities to discuss in the peer-reviewed literature the perils and pitfalls of doing clinical trials on treatment modalities that have already been refuted by basic science," said Gorski.

Testing 'magic'

"The two key examples in the article, homeopathy and Reiki, are about as close to impossible from basic science considerations alone as you can imagine.

"Homeopathy involves diluting substances away to nothing and beyond, while Reiki is, in essence, faith healing that substitutes Eastern mysticism for Christian beliefs; as can be demonstrated by substituting the word 'god' for the 'universal source' which Reiki masters claim to tap into to channel their 'healing energy' into patients."

They say "biologically plausible treatments" should only be tested in clinical trials when there is enough evidence to justify the time, effort and money spent on them.

The authors also say patients need to exercise their own critical thinking skills when evaluating evidence about any treatment, as this will allow them to recognise if a treatment is not supported by data.

Gorski added: "Somehow this idea has sprung up that to be a 'holistic' doctor you have to embrace pseudoscience like homeopathy, Reiki, traditional Chinese medicine, and the like, but that's a false dichotomy.

"If the medical system is currently too impersonal and patients are rushed through office visits because a doctor has to see more and more patients to cover his salary and expenses, then the answer is to find a way to fix those problems, not to embrace quackery. 'Integrating' pseudoscience with science-based medicine isn't going to make science-based medicine better.

"One of our bloggers, Mark Crislip, has a fantastic saying for this: 'If you mix cow pie with apple pie, it does not make the cow pie taste better; it makes the apple pie worse.' With complementary and alternative medicine or 'integrative medicine,' that's exactly what we're doing, and these clinical trials of magic are just more examples of it."