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Archive for May, 2011

The Believing Brain

A common question of skeptics and science-based thinkers is “How could anyone believe that?” People do believe some really weird things and even some obviously false things. The more basic question is how we form all our beliefs, whether false or true.

Michael Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things has become a classic. Now he has a new book out: The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths It synthesizes 30 years of research into the question of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives.

Some of the content is repetitious for those of us who have read Shermer’s previous books and heard him speak, but the value of the new book is that it incorporates new research and it puts everything together in a handy package with a new focus.

Shermer says

I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know. How can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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Measles outbreaks, 2011

We frequently write about the consequences and costs of not vaccinating and how the anti-vaccine movement is causing real harm to real people through its assaults on public health. For example, through his fear mongering in the U.K., Andrew Wakefield, aided and abetted by a credulous and sensationalistic British media, managed to reverse decades of progress that had resulted in measles having come under control; as a result of plummeting vaccination rates in the wake of his 1998 Lancet case series, measles came roaring back in the U.K. Now it appears to be roaring back in Europe as well.

It’s bitterly ironic that news of measles outbreaks in the U.S. and Europe have come to the fore even as, over the long Memorial Day weekend, promoters of the scientifically discredited notion that vaccines cause autism gathered in a suburb of Chicago to sell “biomedical” treatments for autism and promote an anti-vaccine world view as part and parcel of the yearly autism quackfest known as Autism One. Adding to the grim irony is that last Thursday Nature published an issue with a special section devoted specifically to vaccines. The timing seemed just too deliciously appropriate to ignore. Think of it. In the Chicago area, there was a collection of anti-vaccine crackpots meeting to present fallacious “science” claiming that vaccines cause autism and all manner of chronic health problems. In contrast, one of the oldest and most distinguished scientific journals in existence publishes several articles in a single issue about vaccines. The karma was even stronger, given that the week before the CDC published a new Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) last week discussing the status of measles in the U.S.
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Posted in: Public Health, Vaccines

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Smallpox and Pseudomedicine

A good case of smallpox may rid the system of more scrofulous, tubercular, syphilitic and other poisons than could otherwise be eliminated in a lifetime. Therefore, smallpox is certainly to be preferred to vaccination. The one means elimination of chronic disease, the other the making of it.

Naturopaths do not believe in artificial immunization . . .

—Harry Riley Spitler, Basic Naturopathy: a textbook (American Naturopathic Association, Inc., 1948). Quoted here.

Here’s what a good case of smallpox will do for you:

If you’re lucky enough to beat the reaper (20-60%; 80% or higher in infants) or blindness (up to 30%), those blisters will leave you scarred for life. Oh, and the next time a good smallpox epidemic comes around, your children born since the last one will catch it and contribute their fair share to the death rate. But not you because you’ll be immune, so you’ll have the “preferred” experience of watching your children die well before you do.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Epidemiology, Health Fraud, History, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Public Health, Vaccines

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Oil of Oregano

Paradoxically, the less evidence that exists to support the use of of a treatment, the more passionate its supporters seem to be. I learned this early in my career as a pharmacist. One pharmacy I worked at did a steady business in essential oils. And king of the oils was oil of oregano. Not only were there several different brands of the basic oil, they were different forms, including capsules, creams and even nasal sprays. Not aware of any therapeutic benefits, I would ask customers what they were using it for. I rarely heard the same condition described: skin infections, athlete’s foot, head lice, colds, sore throats, “parasites”, “yeasts”, diabetes, allergies and ringworm were apparently no match against the judicious use of oregano oil. Intrigued, I took a closer look.

Long before our scientific understanding of bacteria and antimicrobials, infected wounds were packed with different products in an attempt to minimize the odour, and hopefully speed healing. It’s likely that someone happened upon a fragrant herb and discovered that it seemed to help treat wounds (or at least, cover some of the smell). Given there have been some amazing drugs with powerful effects that have emerged from natural products, it’s certainly plausible that oil of oregano could have biological and therapeutic effects. Oregano (Origanum vulgare) leaves contain a wide variety of chemical compounds, including leanolic acids, ursolic acids, and phenolic glycosides. Phenolic compounds make up to 71% of the oil. Carvacrol, thymol, cymene, and terpinine and are found in oregano leaves and do appear to have biological effects. It’s these chemicals that are proposed to be the parts with beneficial effects.

The claims made by one manufacturer are unambiguous:

Oreganol P73 is the most powerful germ killer with scientifically proven results against almost every virus, bacteria, parasite, and fungi. The complexity of the phytochemical matrix in Oreganol P73 possesses a broad spectrum of antimicrobial properties that are safe for prolonged use. The oil can be used topically and internally. Oreganol P73 is the medicine chest in a bottle, especially since it is proven never to harm the internal organs, even when used daily for health maintenance.

So if we accept the manufacturer’s claims at face value, there should be evidence demonstrating oregano oil is both safe and effective when used internally and externally. There is apparently also adequate long-term safety data to demonstrate that it can be safely used on a daily basis.
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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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SBM at TAM9

This year The Amazing Meeting 9 (designated TAM9 From Outer Space) will be held in Las Vegas from July 14-17. If you have not registered, do it fast – this year the conference will likely sell out.

Among the many incredible speakers and events at TAM9 there will be a Science-Based Medicine workshop and an SBM panel discussion. The prominence of SBM at TAM9 partly reflects the new collaboration between SBM and the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), who organizes TAM.

The SBM website is now a joint project of the New England Skeptical Society (who founded SBM) and the JREF – two non-profit educational organizations dedicated to promoting the public understanding of science. I am delighted that the JREF is making SBM a priority, and we all look forward to working closely with them in promoting high standards of science in medicine and improved public understanding of the relationship between science and the practice of medicine.

As part of this new relationship I have accepted a position at the JREF of Senior Fellow and Director of their Science-Based Medicine project.

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Posted in: Announcements

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How to Build a Bridge

People tend to limit their reading to sources that agree with their beliefs. We find ourselves mostly preaching to the choir; our message usually doesn’t reach those who most need to hear it. I recently received an inquiry from a science-based medical doctor asking how to approach others in building a bridge to clarify so much misinformation.

My first thought was that you can build a bridge but the real challenge is persuading people to cross that bridge. Like leading a horse to water…

How to approach others? That’s a tough question. The best approach varies with the individual and with where he is in his journey. Confrontation seldom works: it just makes people angry. It is counterproductive: it only serves to make them invent more rationalizations to defend their beliefs. Although sometimes anger can be a good thing. I got an e-mail from an acupuncturist who was incensed by an article I wrote saying that acupuncture was not based on good evidence. He set out to prove me wrong by looking up the evidence behind what he had been taught by his teachers about acupuncture’s efficacy for specific conditions, and when he couldn’t find any, he realized that his teachers and his textbooks had misled him with lies. He gave up acupuncture and went back to school to learn a science-based health profession. (more…)

Posted in: Science and the Media

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Fashionably toxic

It’s the toxins.

Toujours les toxines.

How many times have I read or heard from believers in “alternative” medicine that some disease or other is caused by “toxins”? I honestly can’t remember, but in alt-world, no matter what the disease or condition under discussion is, there’s a good chance that sooner or later it will be linked to “toxins.” It doesn’t matter if it’s cancer, autism, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, or that general malaise that comes over people who, as British comedians Mitchell and Webb put it, have more money than sense; somehow, some way, someone will invoke “toxins.”

I was reminded of this obsession among believers in unscientific medicine last Friday when I came across an article by Guy Trebay in the New York Times entitled The Age of Purification. The article appeared, appropriately enough, in the Fashion section and was festooned with photos of cupping, surely one of the silliest of the many “detoxification” modalities that alternative medicine practitioners use to claim to draw the “toxins” out of their clients through the application of, well, cups or various other containers in which the air had been heated in order to generate negative pressure when sealed to the skin and presumably thus bring them to a greater level of purification and health. Indeed, the only “detoxification” rituals sillier than cupping that I can think of off the top of my head are detoxifying footpads and “detox foot baths.”

Oh, wait. Scratch that. I forgot about ear candling, which must surely be the undisputed silliest “detox” treatment of all time—until someone thinks of an even sillier one. Or not. There are just so many silly “detox” procedures that it’s hard to select a “winner.”

Be that as it may, Trebay mixes sarcasm with exposition throughout his article in a rather amusing way that’s worth quoting:

My friend, like everyone else around, seemed to believe that mysterious, amorphous sludge had lodged in the anatomical crannies of half the local adult population. Unseen toxins were lurking, like Communists during the Red Scare.

The “toxins” required elimination, somehow, and thus at lunches, at cocktails, at dinner parties, normal conversations turned abruptly from the day’s news to progress reports on juice fasts, energy alignments, radical purging. From painful sessions with traditional healers to toxin-leaching treatments designed, it might seem, to clean out not just body but wallet, a surprising number of New Yorkers (not all of them well-to-do neurotics) are caught up in a new New Age, the Age of Purification.

How had it happened, I wondered, that so many otherwise sensible, urban people found themselves in the grip of a dreadful feeling that systems are down? “I just bought five pounds of carrots, ginger and kale and put it all in my Breville juicer and pounded that all day,” said a corporate adviser of my acquaintance, far from a credulous woo-woo type.

Of course, as we have noted so many times before, hard-nosed skepticism in one area of one’s life does not necessarily translate to other areas. Many are the people who would never ever fall prey to scams in business, for example, but happily fork over money for scams such as “detox footpads”—or fall for anti-vaccine quackery, like J.B. Handley. Whatever the case, why this fascination with “detoxification” in alternative medicine? Why do so many of its treatments, be they dietary, chelation therapy, purges, colon cleanses, or whatever, claim to eliminate “toxins”? Why is it that, if you Google “alternative medicine” and “detoxification,” you find so many references, some of which claim external toxins need to be eliminated, some of which claim that internal toxins need to be purged, and still more of which blame various “parasites” for all manner of health distress? In this post, I’ll try to explain, but first a little history—self-history that is.
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Posted in: Naturopathy, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Raw Milk in Modern Times

It is hard to get infected. The immune system is robust and has a multitude of interlinking defenses that are extremely efficient in beating off most pathogens. Most of the time.

Fortunately, it is a minority of microbes that have evolved to be virulent in humans. Bacteremia is common with our own microbiome. When you brush or floss, bacteria leak into the blood stream:

We identified oral bacterial species in blood cultures following single-tooth extraction and tooth brushing. Sequence analysis of 16S rRNA genes identified 98 different bacterial species recovered from 151 bacteremic subjects. Of interest, 48 of the isolates represented 19 novel species of Prevotella, Fusobacterium, Streptococcus, Actinomyces, Capnocytophaga, Selenomonas, and Veillonella.

but with a good immune system, low virulence bacteria and no place to go, unfortunately the bacteria rarely cause infections.

Even heroin users rarely get infection. Heroin is a rich melange of  with bacteria and, on occasion, yeasts (I hate to say contaminated, since avoiding microbes is hardly a worry of heroin manufacturers), and the water used for injection is rarely sterile, yet infections are relatively rare despite the filth in which many heroin users exist.

I used to be somewhat fatalistic about hospital acquired infections. However, as the institutions in which I have worked have proven, almost all infections in the hospital are preventable if the institutions aggressively pursue high standards of care.

There are many systems in place in society to prevent infections: flush toilets, good nutrition, public health, vaccines, antibiotics, good hygiene, and an understanding of disease epidemiology, and I suspect people forget there are bugs out there that are pathogenic, just waiting to sicken and kill us. At least a couple of times a year I see patients come into the hospital, previously healthy, who rapidly die of acute infections.  But for most people, most of the time,  it takes a lot of effort to get an infection.

From my perspective we are Charlie Chaplain on skates , mostly unaware of the infections that awaits us if we do something silly, or even when we act with the best intentions to avoid illness. The odds are small we will get a life threatening or serious infection in the US, just as the odds are small we will drown or be killed in a car accident. The germs are there, waiting, and in the end, no matter what we do, we will be consumed by the microbial world. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition, Science and Medicine

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The Top Ten Pet Supplements: Do They Work?

An Embarrassment of Riches?

Much has been written here about the dietary supplement business, a multibillion dollar industry with powerful political connections, and about the woeful inadequacy of regulation which allows widespread marketing of supplements without a solid basis in science or scientific evidence. 

The veterinary supplement market is a pittance compared to the human market, but still a billion-dollar pittance that is growing rapidly. Unfortunately, the resources available for good quality research in veterinary healthcare are also a pittance, and it is not at all unusual for our pets to suffer, or even be euthanized, as a result of treatable diseases for want of money to pay for needed care. So $1 billion a year spent on nutritional supplements may not be such a good deal if these products don’t effectively prevent or treat disease. 

The variety of supplements available is staggering. Many proprietary concoctions of vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other ingredients are marketed for health maintenance, “boosting the immune system,” retarding aging, or treating specific diseases. A comprehensive review of this multitude of moving targets is impossible. But the lion’s share of the pet supplement market goes to a few specific compounds, so I will focus on these. Most of these ingredients are also among the most popular supplements for humans, so there will be substantial overlap with previous discussions of the plausibility and evidence for many of these substances. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Veterinary medicine

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Delusional Parasitosis

A new study looks into the disorder known as delusional parasitosis, which many dermatologists believe is the true diagnosis behind the controversial disorder called Morgellon’s disease. Morgellons is a controversial disorder because many patients with symptoms believe they are being infected by an unusual organism, causing excessive itching, but no offending organism has been found. Some patients claim they have strange fibers exuding from the sores in their skin.

The term “Morgellons” was coined in 2002 by Mary Leitao, who was trying to find a diagnosis for her son who was suffering from skin lesions. Since then it has become a grassroots diagnosis – used by some patients to describe themselves but not accepted by the medical community.

Most dermatologists, rather, feel that the disorder is actually a manifestation of delusional parasitosis – a mental disorder. This has set up an unnecessarily confrontational situation. And of course, some charlatans are exploiting the situation by taking the side of the patients and offering them their nostrums as a cure.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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