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Archive for October, 2009

J.B. Handley of the anti-vaccine group Generation Rescue: Misogynistic attacks on journalists who champion science

There’s been something I’ve been meaning to write about all week, but only just got around to it. There were lots of other things going on at my other online locale, and this topic is such old hat for so many that I really wasn’t sure if it was worth bothering with. My reluctance may also be, sadly, because I’ve become a bit jaded at the nastiness that anti-vaccine groups such as Generation Rescue (i.e., “Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s Autism Organization”–at least these days) and its erstwile founder J.B. Handley routinely lay down when someone points out that the emperor has no clothes, that vaccines do not cause autism. I’m referring, of course, to Amy Wallace, who wrote what is the best example of an article in the mainstream media about the anti-vaccine movement that “gets it.” The article was called An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All and appeared in WIRED Magazine.

It was a thing of beauty. There was no false “balance” that puts cranks pushing dangerous pseudoscience on the same plane as real scientists like Paul Offit. There was even a section calling out purveyors of vaccine misinformation. Several luminaries of the the anti-vaccine movement were there, including ones discussed frequently on this blog, like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. But that wasn’t all! There was even a section on how to debunk anti-vaccine canards. What more could an advocate of science-based medicine ask for?
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Those who live in glass houses…

The last two weeks have brought good news to those who seek to hold chiropractic to the standard of evidence and science-based medicine.

In the first bit of good news, on October 14th Simon Singh was granted permission to appeal the High Court ruling on meaning of the term “bogus” within his original article.  I’m sure most readers of this blog are familiar with Simon Singh’s legal battle with the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) regarding an article in The Guardian entitled “Beware the Spinal Trap.”  We’ve covered it several times over the last year and will continue to do so as the case progresses. The nuances of the British legal system (or any legal system for that matter) are beyond my ken, and are far better explained by Jack of Kent here.  The take-home point is that gaining permission to appeal the ruling on meaning was virtually essential if Simon were to have any real chance of winning this lawsuit.

Even if the BCA should win its lawsuit for libel against Singh, it seems likely to be something of a pyrrhic victory.  After all, in the year since this story began, we’ve been belatedly provided with the BCA’s best evidence in support of chiropractic’s efficacy, and promptly treated to its subsequent evisceration. (more…)

Posted in: Chiropractic, Science and Medicine

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Mainstreaming Science-Based Medicine: A Novel Approach

I have often mused about the difference between being right and being influential – especially in light of the relative success of the anti-vaccine movement. Despite the fact that there is no evidence for a link between vaccines and autism, celebrities like Jenny McCarthy have manufactured public mistrust in one of the safest, most cost effective means of combating disease known to humankind.

So if scientists are not persuading the public with appeals to carefully designed trials and factual data, how should they make their point? I’m not sure I have the full answer, but I think I might have struck a nerve with the public lately. I decided to try a novel approach to communicating my concerns about pseudoscience on the Internet – and presented 20 slides at 20 second intervals to a conference of ePatients in Philadelphia. I did it with powerful and humorous images, tied together with a long Limerick. Sound kooky? Maybe so… but it resonated, and was received with cheers and applause. Now that’s how we like science to be recognized! (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Science and the Media

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Join CFI in opposing funding mandates for quackery in health care reform

Not long ago, I wrote a post warning about how funding for non-science-based modalities and, indeed, modalities that are purely religion-based, have found their way into various versions of health care reform bills that are currently wending their way through both houses of Congress. In other words, purveyors of faith healing and purely religious woo are trying to do what purveyors of “alternative” medicine have already done through Senator Tom Harkin, and hijack the health care reform process to codify their preferred unscientific health care modalities as legitimate after science has rejected them.

Now, the Center for Inquiry has launched a campaign to inform and educate our legislators. You can participate by using its talking points (or paraphrasing them or voicing your own objections) to protest:

Congress is considering health care legislation that would in part mandate coverage of non-evidenced based medical treatments such as prayer and therapeutic touch. This would raise the cost of health care for all Americans and represent a violation of the principle of separation of church and state.

CFI continues:

The Center for Inquiry asks you to contact your Senators and Representative to voice your strong opposition to the proposal in the Heath Care bills that would mandate coverage of non evidence-based “alternative” medical treatments including spiritual and prayer based healing under the guise of nondiscrimination.

Talking Points

  • America needs a health care system that focuses on increasing the health of individuals and reducing the cost of coverage.
  • This type of health care system is not possible if insurers are required to pay for medical treatments with questionable at best results.
  • If Congress requires that insurers cover alternative treatments such as Christian Science prayer, therapeutic touch, or other non-evidence based medical procedures, the cost of health care for all Americans will go up. This runs counter to the goal that Congress has laid out: to make health care more affordable for all Americans. – If the final version of health care reform includes a public option, this mandate would also force the public insurance plan to cover these treatments. Because the public option is federally funded, the inclusion of the mandate would represent an egregious violation of the principle of separation of church and state.

I agree. It’s time to try to stop the insertion of faith-based quackery like Christian Science “prayer” treatments as reimbursable medical expenses in whatever health care reform bill(s) is/are passed by Congress. You can help by going here and writing to your Congressional representatives and Senators.

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Religion

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A Science Lesson from a Homeopath and Behavioral Optometrist

Charlene Werner is getting a lot of attention she probably did not anticipate or desire. She is the star of a YouTube video in which she explains the scientific basis of homeopathy. Before you watch it, make sure you are sitting down, relax, and brace yourself for an onslaught of profound scientific illiteracy combined with stunning arrogance. For those with more delicate constitutions I will give you the quick summary:

Einstein taught us that energy equals matter and light, but because matter can be condensed down to a very small space if you remove all the empty space between the elementary particles (I am paraphrasing to make her statements minimally coherent), we can mostly ignore matter. Therefore energy is light, and we are all made of energy – not matter (or at least so little matter, you can ignore it). Stephen Hawking then came up with string theory, which tells us that all matter (which we can ignore) is made of vibrating strings. Therefore we are made of vibrating energy. All diseases are therefore caused by unhealthy vibrational states, and all disease can be treated by returning the body to a previous healthy vibrational state. This can be done with homeopathy, which extracts the vibrational energy out of stuff and places it in a small pill that can be used at any time.

Got it? This is now my favorite example of meaningless pseudobabble from a CAM proponent. Also, I am not picking on some unrepresentative crank – this is as good as homeopathy gets. Werner may be more clumsy and fumbling than more eloquent homeopathy proponents, but when you strip it down, magical vibrations is what you get. But Werner does a fabulous job of exposing the gaping holes is homeopathic nonsense.

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Posted in: Homeopathy, Ophthalmology, Science and Medicine

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The effective wordsmithing of Amy Wallace

One of the most engaging and clearly-written pieces of science journalism over the last year or so was published in Wired magazine last week. Now in the midst of a firestorm of attention, Amy Wallace’s, “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All,” is part interview with rotavirus vaccine developer, pediatric infectious disease physician and immunologist, Dr Paul Offit, and description of the anti-vaccination movement in the United States.

Wallace’s work is the centerpiece of a masterful collection of smaller articles providing science-based information about vaccination that also refuts common anti-vaccination myths including “How To Win An Argument About Vaccines” and “The Misinformants: Prominent Voices in the Anti-Vaccine Crusade”.

Wired’s follow-up discussion of the issue includes, “A Short History of Vaccine Panic,” for those of us who “have a day job” and not enough time to read Paul Offit’s 2008 book, “Autism’s False Prophets.”
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Military Medicine in Iraq

 Doctors get a lot of flak these days without ever going near a battle zone. They are bombarded with accusations of not caring about their patients, of being shills for Big Pharma, of being motivated by money, of killing patients with medical errors and drug side effects. In addition, they are bombarded with claims that non-scientific medical systems (so-called alternative medicine, from chiropractic to Ayurveda) offer greater benefits to patients. 

It was a delight to read a new book   about a doctor who was exposed to real flak in Iraq. His story is a wonderful reminder of how effective modern medicine is and it is an eye-opener about the selfless dedication of doctors who put themselves in harm’s way; who accept lower incomes, separation from families, and poor living conditions; who care desperately about their patients; and who magnanimously apply the same skills to treating friend and foe. 

The title is Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq. The author, Chris Coppola, is an Air Force pediatric surgeon who was twice deployed to Balad Air Base, 50 miles north of Baghdad, as a trauma surgeon. In his first night on call, he treats the five worst gunshot injuries he has ever seen – and they are all in the same patient! Despite serious damage to liver, colon, small intestine, pancreas, duodenum, vena cava and spine, the patient, a 22 year old Iraqi policeman, recovers. As the foreword of the book explains, the survival rate for troops injured in the field was 20% in WWI, 40% in WWII, 66% in Viet Nam, and is now an astounding 97% in Iraq. Lessons learned in war are translated to civilian trauma care and we all benefit from the knowledge however much we may deplore the war. 

No subluxations were adjusted, no qi manipulated, no acupuncture points stimulated, no homeopathic or herbal medicines given. Beside numbers like these, alternative medicine looks pretty puny and irrelevant. And the Air Force’s initiative to train doctors in battlefield acupuncture looks frankly delusional.  (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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A Not-So-Split Decision

For those who battle tirelessly against the never ending onslaught of anti-vaccine propaganda, misinformation, and fear, there was great news the other day from Merck. The pharmaceutical company, and maker of the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella, has decided not to resume production of the individual, or “split”, components of the vaccine. A Merck representative made the announcement during a meeting of the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) on Tuesday. During previous ACIP meetings, science experts on that committee presented compelling arguments against  continued, large scale production of the monovalent components of the MMR vaccine, which were echoed by scientists in Merck’s vaccine division. In a moment, I’ll discuss the arguments against the split vaccine, and why this is so important a decision. First, some background on the issue of splitting the MMR.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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A science-based blog about GMO

Much time, money, and ink is spent in our culture obsessing over what foods are “good” or “bad” for health. Oftentimes such claims are out of proportion with available evidence, perhaps based on reasonable-sounding theories but not so much on convincing data. Here are a few examples of SBM bloggers addressing food and diet: 1, 2, 3, 4.

An interesting subset of food claims relate to the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in the food chain, safety both for individuals and for ecosystems. I’d like to recommend SBM readers to a blog called Biofortified written by graduate students and scientists in plant genetics. The Biofortified bloggers explain hot topics and controversies in genetic engineering, attempting to cut through the wild propoganda in favor of calm science. The authors tend to be more pro-GMO than not—perhaps unsurprising since their careers are spent studying them—but they strike me as quite reasonable in their support. Here are a few posts I liked: on fears about GE crops, on food labels, on anecdotal health claims, on gene patents, on smoking your vaccines someday.

Today is a particularly good time for you to check out Biofortified because they are competing in the Ashoka Changemakers “GMO: Risk or Rescue?” contest. According to Karl, a grad student who writes on Biofortified, theirs is the only “pro-science” group in the running. The prize includes a nice grant and an opportunity to have a conversation with author Michael Pollan. If you like the blog enough to vote for them by this Wednesday 10/28 at 6pm EST, see details about the contest here.

Posted in: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

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Suzanne Somers’ Knockout: Dangerous misinformation about cancer (part 1)

If there’s one thing I’ve become utterly disgusted with in the time since I first became interested in science-based medicine as a concept, its promotion, and the refutation of quackery and medical pseudoscience, it’s empty-brained celebrities with an agenda. Be it from imbibing the atmosphere within the bubble of woo-friendly southern California or taking a crash course at the University of Google and, through the arrogance of ignorance, concluding that they know more than scientists who have devoted their lives to studying a problem, celebrities believing in and credulously promoting pseudoscience present a special problem because of the oversized soapboxes they command. Examples abound. There’s Bill Maher promoting anti-vaccine pseudoscience, germ theory denialism, and cancer quackery on his show Real Time with Bill Maher and getting the Richard Dawkins Award from the Atheist Alliance International in spite of his antiscience stances on vaccines and what he sneeringly calls “Western medicine.” Then there are, of course, the current public faces of the anti-vaccine movement, Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey, the former of whom thinks it’s just hunky dory (or at least doesn’t appear to be the least bit troubled) that her efforts are contributing to the return of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases because she apparently thinks that’s what it will take to make the pharmaceutical companies change their “shit” product (her words), and the latter of whom spreads conspiracy theories about vaccines and contempt on people suffering from restless leg syndrome. Finally, there’s the grand macher of celebrity woo promotion, Oprah Winfrey, who routinely promotes all manner of medical pseudoscience, be it “bioidentical” hormones, the myth that vaccines cause autism (even hiring Jenny McCarthy to do a blog and develop a talk show for her company Harpo Productions), or other nonsense, such as Christiane Northrup urging Oprah viewers to focus their qi to their vaginas for better sex.

Unfortunately, last week the latest celebrity know-nothing to promote health misinformation released a brand new book and has been all over the airwaves, including The Today Show, Larry King Live, and elsewhere promoting it. Yes, I’m talking about Suzanne Somers, formerly known for her testimonial of having “rejected chemotherapy and tamoxifen” for her breast cancer, as well as her promotion of “bioidentical hormones,” various exercise devices such as the Thighmaster and all manner of supplements. Her book is entitled Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer–And How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place. It is described on the Random House website thusly:
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Science and the Media

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