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Archive for December, 2011

The compassion gambit

I’ve spent the last three weeks writing about a “brave maverick doctor” by the name of Stanislaw Burzynski who claims that he can cure cancers that regular oncologists cannot. He uses a combination of what he calls “antineoplastons” (which, it turns out, are more or less than the active metabolites of an orphan drug known as sodium phenylbutyrate) plus a very expensive cocktail of chemotherapy and targeted agents chosen in a haphazard fashion and thrown together with little rhyme or reason. This week, I had planned to move on. However, I felt that I had to mention the Burzynski saga because it provides me with the most appropriate segue to a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time, possibly since this blog began. In fact, it’s about as perfect a framework as I can think of upon which to drape the points I want to make in this post.

What I will discuss is perhaps the most effective, devastating attack that proponents of quackery, woo, and nonsense aim at supporters of science-based medicine (SBM). As far as that is the case, it is not effective because it’s fact-based, evidence-based, or science-based. Far from it. Rather, it’s effective because it appeals to the emotions and very effectively demonizes SBM proponents to the point where they often have a hard time standing their ground when it is used. Sometimes, it preemptively prevents them from even speaking up in the first place. It’s a little tactic that I like to call the “compassion gambit,” which means trying to discredit critics of “alternative” medicine by painting them as cold, unfeeling, uncaring, arrogant monsters who want to hurt or kill children (and probably get a big smile on their faces when they torture puppies, to boot).
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Posted in: Cancer, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Alas poor Craniosacral. A SCAM of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

It is hard to Sokalize alternative medicine. The closest has been buttock reflexology/acupuncture, but that is a tame example.  Given the propensity for projections of the human body to appear on the iris, hand, foot, tongue, and ear, postulating a similar pattern on the buttocks are simple variations on a common SCAM (Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine) theme. The buttocks?  Not really different from any of the other focal acupunctures.  Most of SCAM does not concern itself with application of reality  and physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, etc can all be expected to be ignored with virtually all SCAM modalities.

Every time I think the heights (or depths) of absurdity has been reached, I discover a Braco the Starer or Himalayan Salt Inhalers. This blog is not affiliated with the British Medical Journal in any way, and although this is being published near Christmas, I want no one think that what follows is a hoax.  I am not, I repeat not,  making up what follows. It is not fiction. Well, it is fiction, but not written by me and believed and practiced by some who really should know better.

Craniosacral Therapy
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Posted in: Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Humor, Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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Vaccination mandate exemptions: gimme that ol’ time philosophy

Each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia require vaccination against certain diseases as a prerequisite to public and private school attendance, most commonly polio, mumps, measles, diphtheria, rubella, chicken pox, Heamophilus influenza type b, pertussis, tetanus, pneumococcal disease and hepatitis B. Unfortunately, mandatory vaccination for home-schooled children is rare. (1)

All states provide medical exemptions to vaccination mandates for those for whom vaccination poses a health threat. Indeed, it is doubtful that a state could constitutionally deny such medical exemptions.

Forty-eight states also allow exemptions based on religious beliefs. While it might be assumed that religious exemptions are required by the protection afforded religion under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that is not the case. The opposite is true. Religious exemptions themselves are constitutionally suspect. In fact, to pass First Amendment muster, a state’s religious exemption statute may have to be so broad as to become, in essence, a “philosophical” exemption.

Vaccination mandates survive early challenges

Compulsory vaccination laws have enjoyed strong support in the state and federal courts for over a century. Early in the 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of a statute authorizing a municipal board of health to require and enforce vaccination, in this case during a smallpox epidemic. The Court found the legislation represented a valid exercise of the state’s police power. In a statement that proved prescient about the failed constitutional challenges to vaccination mandates which followed, the Court said that “we do not perceive that this legislation has invaded any right secured by the Federal Constitution.” Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 38 (1905).

In 1922, the Court specifically addressed the subject of school vaccination, holding that it is a valid exercise of the state’s police power to make vaccination a condition of attending public or private school. Zucht v. King, 260 U.S. 174 (1922).
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Posted in: Chiropractic, Legal, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Religion, Vaccines

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Defending CAM with Bad Logic and Bad Data

At SBM our mission is to promote the highest standards of science in medicine, and to explore exactly what that means, both in the specific and the general. We do spend a lot of space criticizing so-called CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) because it represents a semi-organized attempt to reduce or even eliminate the science-based standard of care, and to sow confusion rather than clarity as to how science works and what the findings of medical science are.

CAM proponents tend to use the same bad arguments over and over again. They have no choice (other than deciding not to be CAM proponents) – if a treatment were backed by solid logic and evidence it would not be CAM, it would just be medicine.  As SBM’s fourth year comes to a close I thought I would round up the most common bad arguments that CAM proponents put forward to defend their position. Like creationists, pointing out the errors in their facts and logic will not stop them from continuing to use these arguments. But this lack of imagination on their part makes it somewhat easy to counter their arguments, since the same ones will come up again and again.

The argument from antiquity

Our SBM colleagues in Australia have been critical of the incorporation of unscientific methods into academia. In defense of this practice:

Professor Iain Graham from Southern Cross University’s School of Health yesterday defended his university, saying the use of alternative therapies, such as homeopathy, can be traced as far back as ancient Greece.

This is a common claim – that some CAM modalities have been around for centuries, or even thousands of years, and so they must work. I am not sure if professor Graham intended to state that homeopathy can be traced back to ancient Greece, perhaps he just meant that some CAM therapies can, and chose homeopathy as a bad example. For the record, homeopathy was invented by Samuel Hahnemann about 200 years ago.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Phthalates and BPA: Of Mice and Men

Is your soup poisoning you? In a recent study  subjects who ate canned vegetable soup had markedly increased levels of BPA in their urine compared to those who ate freshly prepared soup. We are constantly bombarded with alarmist warnings about the dangerous chemicals in the products we use. Especially BPA (Bisphenol A) and phthalates. Beware plastic bottles! Beware rubber ducks! And now, beware canned soup!   BPA and phthalates are classified as endocrine disruptors. They have been discussed before on SBM here and here.  BPA has been accused of causing everything from obesity to prostate cancer. Phthalates have been accused of causing everything from breast cancer to reduced anogenital distance in baby boys (the significance of this is unknown: there is not even any standard for what the normal distance is).

In the book Slow Death by Rubber Duck

Using a variety of test methods, the authors determined individual “body burdens,” or the toxic chemical load we carry. The innocuous rubber duck, for example, offers a poison soup of phthalates that “permeate the environment and humans.” From other products and food we also have a collection of chemicals shorthanded as PFCs, PFOAs, PSOSs, and PCBs. None of them are good, and they are everywhere…

Is this science or irresponsible fear-mongering? What does the best evidence tell us? Should we be afraid of our canned soup and rubber ducks? (more…)

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, antineoplastons, and the selling of an orphan drug as a cancer cure

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time (and, characteristically, verbiage) analyzing the phenomenon known as Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and his “cancer cure” known as antineoplastons. In part I of this series, Stanislaw Burzynski: Bad medicine, a bad movie, and bad P.R., I used the legal threats against bloggers criticizing the credulous promotion by the British press of fundraising campaigns to send children with terminal cancer to the Burzynski Clinic and the promotion of the medical propaganda movie Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is Serious Business to review the movie’s claims and look into Burzynski’s claims for antineoplastons. Not surprisingly, I found the evidence for extravagant claims for their anticancer effects unconvincing. In part II, Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy”: Can he do what he claims for cancer?, I looked into Dr. Burzynski’s recent efforts to “diversify his portfolio, in which he has apparently decided to ride the new wave of genomic medicine to claim he can do “personalized, gene-targeted cancer therapy.” I concluded that he does appear to do that, only very badly, in essence “making it up as he goes along.”

In this third and final part, I want to come back to antineoplastons, because it has been pointed out to me that there is an aspect of this story that has received little attention. One reader in particular has helped enormously in my education about this aspect of the Burzynski saga. I wish I could credit this person by name, but, for reasons I fully understand, I can’t. However, this person’s input was essential, and I’ve even appropriated (with permission, of course) a little bit of text here and there from our e-mail exchanges to “integrate” into this post. Putting this together with information in my previous posts, I think we can come to some conclusions about what it is that Dr. Burzynski is really doing.

Burzynski and an orphan drug

In the first part of this series, I pointed out that back in the 1970s Dr. Burzynski claimed to have discovered cancer-fighting substances in human urine, which he dubbed “antineoplastons,” claiming that patients with cancer had lower levels of these substances in their blood and urine. However, I was pretty vague about just what these substances were, other than to point out that they were modified amino acids and that since 1980 Dr. Burzynski has been synthesizing them in a chemistry lab rather than isolating them from urine as he had done up until then. This vagueness came simply from my interest in moving straight to looking at Burzynski’s claims rather than what these substances were. In retrospect, that might have been a mistake. The reason is that understanding what two of Burzynski’s antineoplastons are is critical to understanding what he is doing with them and why he might occasionally appear to be observing an antitumor response.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Legal, Medical Ethics, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Integrative Medicine: “Patient-Centered Care” is the new Medical Paternalism

Integrative Pitchmen

Several of us have written about how contemporary quacks have artfully pitched their wares to a higherbrow market than their predecessors were accustomed to, back in the day. Through clever packaging,* quacks today can reasonably hope to become professors at prestigious medical schools, to control and receive substantial grant money from the NIH, to preside over reviews for the Cochrane Collaboration, to be featured as guests and even as hosts on mainstream television networks and on PBS, to issue opinions in the name of the National Academy of Sciences, to be patronized by powerful politicians, and even to be chosen by U.S. presidents to chair influential government commissions.

The most successful pitch so far, and the one that the fattest quack-cats of all have apparently decided to bet the farm on, is “integrative medicine” (IM). Good call: the term avoids any direct mention of the only thing that distinguishes it from plain medicine. Its proponents, unsurprisingly, have increasingly come to understand that when they are asked to explain what IM is, it is prudent to leave some things to the imagination. They’re more likely to get a warm reception if they lead people to believe that IM has to do with reaching goals that almost everyone agrees are worthy: compassionate, affordable health care for all, for example.

In that vein, the two most consistent IM pitches in recent years—seen repeatedly in statements found in links from this post—are that IM is “preventive medicine” and that it involves “patient-centered care.” I demolished the “preventive” claim a couple of years ago, as did Drs. Lipson, Gorski, and probably others. Today I’ll explain why the “patient-centered care” claim is worse than fatuous.

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Posted in: Health Fraud, History, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Vitamin B12 – The Energy Panacea?

Having spent many hours working in close proximity to a wall of vitamins, I’ve answered a lot of vitamin questions, and given a lot of recommendations. Before I can make a recommendation, I need to ask some questions of my own. My first is almost always, “Why do you want to take a vitamin?” The most common response I’m given is “insurance” – which usually means supplementation in the absence of any symptom or medical need. Running a close second is “I need more energy.” With some digging, the situation usually boils down to a perceived lack of energy compared to some prior period: last week, last year, or a decade ago. While I may identify possible medical issues as a result of these interviews (these are referred to a physician), I’m often faced with a patient with mild and non-specific descriptions of fatigue. And more often than not, they’ve already decided that they’re going to buy a multivitamin supplement. When it comes to boosting the energy levels, they’re often interested in a specific one: Vitamin B12 (cobalamin). So why does vitamin B12, among all the vitamins, have a halo of benefit for fatigue and energy levels? The answer is part science and a whole lot of marketing. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition

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Michael Specter on the Placebo Effect

Michael Specter is a good science journalist. I particularly enjoyed his book, Denialism. In a recent New Yorker article he tackles the difficult question of the placebo effect in modern medicine. While he does a fair job of hitting upon the key points of this question, I think he missed some important aspects of this question and allowed the views of Ted Kaptchuk to overly influence the framing of the article. Specter fell for the typical journalist trap — frame the article around a charismatic “maverick”, complete with compelling anecdotes, bury the meat of legitimate skepticism deep in the article, but then bring it all back to the maverick in the end. Be sure to tell us how this is going to change everything. This is good story telling, but very problematic as science journalism.

Kaptchuk himself is an interesting character. He is heading Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter. He has produced some good science on the placebo effect, but does not seem to want to draw the appropriate lessons from that research, and passes his bias on to Specter.  From the article the quotes from Kaptchuk that most strike me are those about his personal experience with placebo medicine. Specter reports:

“There was no fucking way needles or herbs did anything for that woman’s ovaries,” he told me, still looking mystified, thirty-five years later. “It had to be some kind of placebo, but I had never given the idea of a placebo effect much attention. I had great respect for shamans—and I still do. I have always believed there is an important component of medicine that involves suggestion, ritual, and belief—all ideas that make scientists scream. Still, I asked myself, Could I have cured her? How? I mean, what could possibly have been the mechanism?”

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Eat Fat, Get Thin?

I recently received an e-mail from a high school science department head who is teaching a unit on nutritional science. He asked for my opinion of a YouTube video of a lecture advocating a high saturated fat diet. The speaker is Donald W. Miller, Jr., M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon at my alma mater, the University of Washington. My correspondent commented, “I have a feeling that there is room for some skepticism.”   I agree: there’s a whole lot of room for skepticism.

An article based on that video lecture is available on Dr. Miller’s website.   It’s entitled “Enjoy Saturated Fats, They’re Good for You!”  If you want to judge for yourselves, I recommend the article over the video, as he is a poor public speaker.

Dr. Miller’s website contains a lot of disturbing material.  He appears to be a contrarian who disagrees with the consensus of scientific experts on a wide variety of topics, for instance:

  • Health Benefits of a Low-Carbohydrate, High-Saturated Fat Diet
  • Fighting Fluoride [fluoride is poison!]
  • Cardiac Surgeon Dr. Donald Miller Tells Dr. Dean Ornish to Take a Hike
  • Avoid Flu Shot, Take Vitamin D [flu is a Vitamin D deficiency disease?]
  • Questioning HIV/AIDS, Human-Caused Global Warming, and other Orthodoxies in the Biomedical Sciences
  • A User-Friendly Vaccination Schedule [no vaccinations before age 2, no live vaccines, etc.]

He refers to questionable sources of information like the Weston Price Foundation and the notorious AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg. (more…)

Posted in: Nutrition

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