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Archive for November, 2009

Closing the Door on Homeopathy

Homeopathy, as a cultural phenomenon, remains an enigma. In the two centuries since its invention it has failed to garner significant scientific support. In fact, developments in physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine have shown the underlying concepts of homeopathy to be wrong – guesswork and speculation that lept in the wrong direction.

It turns out, like does not cure like. This is nothing more than sympathetic magic – popular at the time but now considered nothing more than superstition without any scientific basis.

It also turns out that diluting a substance does not make it more potent – this nonsensical idea (ridiculed even in the 19th century) violates the laws of thermodynamics, and the chemical principle of mass action. This is especially true when you dilute a substance beyond the point where chance would have even a single molecule of active ingredient left behind. The background noise of chemicals in homeopathic water is orders of magnitude greater than the signal of whatever had previously been diluted in it.

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Posted in: Homeopathy

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The Mythbusters of Psychology

Karl Popper said “Science must begin with myths and with the criticism of myths.” Popular psychology is a prolific source of myths. It has produced widely held beliefs that “everyone knows are true” but that are contradicted by psychological research. A new book does an excellent job of mythbusting: 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and the late, great skeptic Barry L. Beyerstein.

I read a lot of psychology and skeptical literature, and I thought I knew a lot about false beliefs in psychology, but I wasn’t as savvy as I thought. Some of these myths I knew were myths, and the book reinforced my convictions with new evidence that I hadn’t seen; some I had questioned and I was glad to see my skepticism vindicated; but some myths I had swallowed whole and the book’s carefully presented evidence made me change my mind. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Pseudo-expertise versus science-based medicine

I am a skeptic.

My support for science-based medicine, as important as it is and as much time, sweat, and treasure I spend supporting it, is not the be-all and end-all of my skepticism, which derives from a scientific world view. That’s why, every so often, I like to step back from medicine a bit and look at the broader picture. It’s a good idea to do this from time to time, because to me, many of the topics that I and my fellow SBM bloggers write about are not just manifestations of anti-science and pseudoscience in medicine, but rather of a broader problem of anti-science and pseudoscience in society at large. I concentrate on medicine because it’s what I do and because manifestations of pseudoscience in medicine have the potential to harm or even kill large numbers of people.

Look no further than the anti-vaccine movement if you don’t believe me. Already, a mere decade after Andrew Wakefield’s lawyer-funded, incompetent, and perhaps even fraudulent “study” about a supposed relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism, uptake of MMR vaccines have plummeted throughout the U.K., with some areas of London reporting only 50% uptake, far too low for effective herd immunity. Thanks to J.B. Handley, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and the know-nothing band of celebrities and activists, we are in serious danger of having the same sort of thing happen right here in the U.S. Indeed, Jenny McCarthy herself has even acknowledged that, although in her characteristically self-absorbed and vulgar manner, she refused to take responsibility for her part in this impending public health debacle, dismissing her role by saying, “I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.” Meanwhile autistic children suffer from the quackery to which they are subjected in a futile attempt to “recover” them from “vaccine injury”-induced autism.

But it’s not just the anti-vaccine movement. It’s cancer quackery, promoted by “luminaries” such as Suzanne Somers and Bill Maher, given aid and comfort by doctors gone bad such as Dr. Rashid Buttar and Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, “bioidentical hormone” woo promoted by the aforementioned Suzanne Somers and Dr. Christiane Northrup. It’s all manner of other faith-based and definitely non-science-based medicine so called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM, which is neither complementary nor medicine, although there is no doubt that it’s “alternative”) or “integrative medicine” (which “integrates” pseudoscience with effective medicine to the detriment of patients) finding its way into our academic medical schools, even to the point of being mandatory at at least one medical school and being a strongly touted option at many others. Meanwhile, the misbegotten behemoth of woo, funded by your tax dollars and mine, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) promotes remedies based on a prescientific understanding of how the body works and what causes diseases, even going so far as to promote “integrative medicine” residencies. Meanwhile science-based medical students face a serious dilemma: Go with the flow or fight.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Yes, But. The Annotated Atlantic.

Reposted on 11/8 with multiple typo corrections.

The Atlantic recently published an article called “Does the Vaccine Matter?.” The quick answer is “yes”. If you want to know more, keep reading. They concluded, based on a narrow interpretation of a small subset of the data, that vaccines probably do not matter. The tone suggests that the vaccine is a vast boondoggle perpetuated on the American people by frightened doctors and greedy pharmaceutical companies. At least that is my take on the article, your mileage may vary. Lets look at that article, and its review of the influenza vaccine, and see whatthe authors  say, how they say it, and, perhaps more importantly, what they don’t say.

Unfortunately, I do not have a good story to tell with protagonists and antagonists and lone voices protesting the evil medical industrial complex. I don’t have a morality tale to tell, with good guys and bad guys. I have the medical literature, with its numbers and uncertainties and nuance. I also have patients I have to treat and have to apply the medical literature to as best I can.
This entry may be a bit of a repetition for those who read my previous entry on vaccine efficacy, but my entry hit the blogosphere a few days before the Atlantic article, so I did not get a chance to incorporate it into my entry. (more…)

Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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What’s the right C-section rate? Higher than you think.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Mark Crislip has been kidnapped by anti-vaccinationists. Fortunately, we have sent our black Illuminati, pharma-funded, vaccine-wielding helicopters to rescue him, but unfortunately, as a result of his trauma, his usual Friday post is likely to be delayed either until this afternoon or Saturday. In any case, fortunately for us our latest addition to the SBM crew, Dr. Tuteur, was willing to fill in on short notice; so here she is. Dr. Crislip will post by tomorrow. To whet your appetite for his patented sarcasm, let me just say that he will be having a little fun with a certain article from The Atlantic about flu vaccines. There, now doesn’t that make you want to check back tomorrow to find out what his take is on the article? I thought it would.

Buried in the midst of it new report, Monitoring emergency obstetric care; a handbook, the World Health Organization acknowledges what obstetricians have been saying for some time. The WHO’s goal of a 10-15% C-section rate lacks any empirical basis.

Earlier editions of this handbook set a minimum (5%) and a maximum (15%) acceptable level for caesarean section. Although WHO has recommended since 1985 that the rate not exceed 10–15%, there is no empirical evidence for an optimum percentage or range of percentages …

Of course, they’re not going to give up their recommendation simply because there is no science that supports it, insisting that “a growing body of research that shows a negative effect of high rates.”

Dr. Marsden Wagner, former head of the Perinatal Division of the WHO, appears to be responsible for the purported optimal C-section rate of 10-15%, the level at which both maternal and neonatal mortality rates are supposedly the lowest. Ironically, Dr. Wagner is a co-author of a recent study that actually demonstrates the opposite.
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Posted in: Obstetrics & gynecology, Science and Medicine

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The Tragic Death Toll of Homebirth

More than 10,000 American women each year choose planned homebirth with a homebirth midwife in the mistaken belief that it is a safe choice. In fact, homebirth with a homebirth midwife is the most dangerous form of planned birth in the US.

In 2003 the US standard birth certificate form was revised to include place of birth and attendant at birth. In both the 2003 and 2004 Linked Birth Infant Death Statistics, mention was made of this data, but it was not included in the reports. Now the CDC has made the entire dataset available for review and the statistics for homebirth are quite remarkable. Homebirth increases the risk of neonatal death to double or triple the neonatal death rate at hospital birth.

As this chart shows, the neonatal mortality rate for DEM (direct entry midwife, another name for homebirth midwife) assisted homebirth is almost double the neonatal mortality rate for hospital birth with an MD. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the hospital group contains women of all risk levels, with all possible pregnancy complications, and all pre-existing medical conditions. An even better comparison would be with the neonatal mortality rates for CNM assisted hospital birth. The risk profile of CNM hospital patients is slightly higher than that of DEM patients, but CNMs do not care for high risk patients. Compared to CNM assisted hospital birth, DEM assisted homebirth has TRIPLE the neonatal mortality rate.
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Posted in: Obstetrics & gynecology

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The Skeptical O.B. joins the Science-Based Medicine crew

I’m very pleased to announce that Dr. Amy Tuteur, otherwise known as The Skeptical O.B., has joined Science-Based Medicine. Dr. Tuteur will fill in an area where we are lacking, namely an expert in women’s health and childbirth. For those of you who don’t know Dr. Tuteur, she is an obstetrician-gynecologist. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard College and her medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Tuteur is a former clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. Her book, How Your Baby Is Born, an illustrated guide to pregnancy, labor and delivery was published by Ziff-Davis Press in 1994. She runs the website AskDrAmy.com and has her own iPhone app, the Ask Dr. Amy Am I Pregnant Quiz. Dr. Tuteur blogs at The Skeptical OB.

We expect great things from Dr. Tuteur, and hope you will join us in welcoming her to the fold. She will begin tomorrow and will post new material every Thursday. Finally, with the addition of Dr. Tuteur, it should also be noted that, due to the demands of her day job, Dr. Val Jones will decrease her posting frequency from every Thursday to every other Thursday. She will thus not be posting this week, and her next post will be on Thursday, November 12.

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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It’s All in Your Head

I have never used those words to a patient or about a patient.  I have also never heard a colleague use any similar term to a patient. And yet on many occasions I have had patients ask me, “So you’re telling me it’s all in my head?”

The concept of what are now called psychogenic symptoms is a tricky one for various reasons. There is an unfortunate stigma attached to the notion that our brains can cause physical symptoms. Making the diagnosis is complex. Outcomes are variable and are hampered by the difficulty in communicating the diagnosis to patients. Psychogenic symptoms often mask underlying physiological disease. And the risks of both false positives and false negatives are high.

This complexity leads some to argue, in essence, that psychogenic symptoms do not exist at all – that the diagnosis is a cop out, a way to blame the patient for the failings of the physician. But this approach, ironically, is a cop out, because it seeks to white wash what is a real and complex disorder with an overly simplistic and moralistic approach.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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When Loud Wins: Will Your Tax Dollars Pay For Prayer?

Today the LA Times described a bizarre and troublesome healthcare reform bill provision that would require Medicare to pay for Christian Science Prayer as a medical treatment:

…a little-noticed provision in the healthcare overhaul bill would require insurers to consider covering Christian Science prayer treatments as medical expenses.

The provision was inserted by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) with the support of Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry and the late Edward M. Kennedy, both of Massachusetts, home to the headquarters of the Church of Christ, Scientist.

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Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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All Medicines Are Poison!

That’s the title of a new book  by Melvin H. Kirschner, M.D. When I first saw the title, I expected a polemic against conventional medicine. The first line of the Preface reassured me: “Everything we do has a risk-benefit ratio.” Dr. Kirschner took the title from his first pharmacology lecture in medical school. The professor said “I am here to teach you how to poison people.” After a pause, he added, “without killing them, of course.” 

He meant that any medicine that has effects has side effects, that the poison is in the dose, and that we must weigh the benefits of any treatment against the risks. Dr. Kirschner has no beef with scientific medicine. He does have a lot of other beefs, mainly with the health insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and alternative medicine. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Pharmaceuticals

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