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Archive for April, 2013

A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind

In his first book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Wrong, neurologist Robert Burton showed that our certainty that we are right has nothing to do with how right we are. He explained how brain mechanisms can make us feel even more confident about false beliefs than about true ones. Now, in a new book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves, he investigates the larger question of how a brain creates a mind. There is no alternative to the scientific method for studying the physical world, but Burton thinks there are essential limitations to science’s ability to investigate conundrums like consciousness and free will. Brain scientists fall into error because:

…our brains possess involuntary mechanisms that make unbiased thought impossible yet create the illusion that we are rational creatures capable of fully understanding the mind created by these same mechanisms.

He has a bone to pick with neuroscientists. They are discovering fascinating information, but their interpretations often go beyond what the data can really tell us. They often draw questionable conclusions from imaging studies that could have other explanations. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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“Alternative” cancer cures in 1979: How little things have changed

Sometimes blogging topics arise from the strangest places. It’s true. For instance, although references to how tobacco causes cancer and the decades long denialist campaign by tobacco companies are not infrequently referenced in my blogging (particularly from supporters of highly dubious studies alleging a link between cell phone radiation and cancer and the ham-handed misuse of the analogy by antivaccinationists, who seem to think that vaccine companies engage in deceit on a scale similar to the deceptive practices of tobacco companies in “denying” that vaccines cause autism and all the other conditions, diseases, and horrors their fevered imaginations attribute to them), I’ve never really delved particularly deeply into one of the most useful repositories of documents on the topic that exists, namely the UCSF Legacy Tobacco Documents Library. Actually, the reason I started poking around there is not due to tobacco science, but because a fellow blogger mentioned to me that there were some articles and documents about Stanislaw Burzynski there dating back to the late 1970s. My curiosity was piqued.

As I explored, however, I learned that the documents there were not so much about Stanislaw Burzynski per se. In fact, they were more about the state of the underground “alternative cancer cures” industry in the late 1970s, which interested me greatly. The reason is that, when it comes to having delved so deeply into cancer quackery, I’m a relative newbie. Compared to, for example, Wally Sampson, Stephen Barrett, Peter Moran, or even Kimball Atwood, I’m inexperienced, having only noticed this phenomenon in a big way in the Usenet newsgroup misc.health.alternative back around 2001 or so, give or take a year. As a result, I don’t have the shared historical perspective that they do, mainly because I can only learn about that era from reading, studying, and talking to people who were active then. After all, in the late 1970s I was still in high school, and in the 1980s I was in college and medical school. There was no Internet (at least none that I had access to and that contained the wealth of easily accessible information to which we have become accustomed). In any case, in high school I had other interests, and throughout the 1980s I was too focused on getting an education and training to be a surgeon and researcher, a process that extended into the late 1990s. (Yes, it takes that long sometimes, particularly if you are masochistic enough to want to get a PhD, complete a general surgery residency, and do a fellowship in surgical oncology.)
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, History

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Alternative Medicine and the Vulnerable Child

A concept that has been well-recognized in pediatric medicine, at least since it was first described in 1964, is that of vulnerable child syndrome (VCS). Classically VCS occurs when a currently healthy child is felt to be at increased risk for behavioral, developmental, or medical problems by a primary caregiver, usually a parent, and typically follows a serious illness. It can lead to some pretty serious behavioral complications in the parent, and subsequently the child, and severely impact entire families.

In the past, I have mistakenly thought of this entity more as “sick child syndrome” but that is problematic. It implies that it only occurs in the aftermath of true illness or injury. As I will explain in detail, there is much more to the development of VCS and it is the concern of VCS in children without true medical problems that led me to amend my understanding and make the connection with alternative medicine.

Is VCS Really a Problem?

Every parent (well, most parents – I’ve seen some things), worries about the well-being of their children. The desire to protect our personal genetic repositories is hardwired. And as with many behaviors, there is a point where parental worry becomes pathologic and interferes with normal functioning. In the case of VCS, the relationship between the parent and child can be severely impacted and the consequences can be disastrous.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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What’s in your supplement?

When you pick up a bottle of supplements, should you trust what the label says?  While there is the perception that supplements are effective and inherently safe, there are good reasons to be skeptical. Few supplements are backed by good evidence that show they work as claimed. The risks of supplements are often not well understood. And importantly, the entire process of manufacturing, distributing, and marketing supplements is subject to a completely different set of rules than for drugs.  These products may sit on pharmacy shelves, side-by-side with bottles of Tylenol, but they are held to significantly lower safety and efficacy standards. So while the number of products for sale has grown dramatically, so has the challenge to identify supplements that are truly safe and effective. (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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Science-Based Public Service Announcements

Changing behavior is difficult. It is also an increasing priority for health care. We have entered a period of history when lifestyle choices have a dominant impact on health and longevity. People are no longer dying young of incurable infectious diseases in significant numbers. Rather they are surviving long enough to die from their bad habits.

Further, health behaviors are having a huge impact on the overall cost of health care. So the motivation is greater than ever to impact public health by influencing behavior. Yet, we are not very good at doing this.

It’s not that we’re not trying – it’s simply that having a large influence on people’s day-to-day behavior is remarkably difficult. There is ongoing research looking at how to effectively change behavior at the individual and public level, but it is complex, often conflicting, and new techniques at best yield only marginal gains.

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Posted in: Public Health

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Too Much Information!

Some people would like to manage their own health care without having to depend on a doctor. They consult Google, diagnose themselves, and treat themselves. The Do-It-Yourself trend in lab tests continues apace. Without a doctor’s order, patients can get legitimate and/or questionable lab tests directly from various companies such as Any Lab Test Now and Doctor’s Data (which has sued Stephen Barrett for exposing their fraudulent “urine toxic metals” test on Quackwatch). Now a new company, Talking20, has jumped on the self-testing bandwagon with an innovative product that allows people to prick their finger, put a drop of blood on a card, and mail it in from anywhere in the world. Multiple tests are done on a single drop of blood. Results will be available online within a week or even sooner.
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Posted in: Uncategorized

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A very special issue of Medical Acupuncture

Every so often, our “friends” on the other side of the science aisle (i.e., the supporters of “complementary and alternative medicine”—otherwise known as CAM or “integrative medicine”) give me a present when I’m looking for a topic for my weekly bit of brain droppings about medicine, science, and/or why CAM is neither. It’s also been a while since I’ve written about this particular subject; so it’s a win-win for all sides! I get a topic. A certain CAM journal gets extra traffic. And you get the benefit of my usually brilliant deconstruction of dubious science. What could go wrong? I mean, I might not be Mark Crislip, but I do enjoy a good dive into a pile of pseudoscience every now and then. It’s just a weird trait of mine.

In any case, there is a journal called Medical Acupuncture. Sadly, it’s published by a real scientific publisher, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., a publisher that has a stable of decent, if not top tier, journals. Unfortunately, it also has a stable of CAM journals, including, of course, the aforementioned journal Medical Acupuncture. Because I happen to be on the mailing list for Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., I recently got an e-mail with an announcement:

How Does Acupuncture Work? The Science behind the Therapy Is Explored in a Special Issue of Medical Acupuncture

New Rochelle, NY, April 16, 2013—Even as medical acupuncture is increasingly being validated as an effective treatment for a broad range of medical conditions, what has been missing is an understanding of the basic science and mechanisms of action of this age-old method of healing. A special issue of Medical Acupuncture, a peer-reviewed journal published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers presents a series of articles by authors from around the world who provide diverse and insightful perspectives on the science and physiologic responses underlying medical acupuncture. The issue is available free on the Medical Acupuncture website.

“Understanding acupuncture in the same manner that we understand the mechanism of action and pharmacokinetics of a particular drug will, similarly, enable us to match treatments better with conditions,” states Guest Editor Richard F. Hobbs, III, MD. “The net effect will be improved outcomes,” he writes in his editorial “Basic Science Matters.”

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Posted in: Acupuncture

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Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears the Flu

Infectious diseases (ID), as those who read my not-so-secret other blog know, is without a doubt the most interesting speciality of medicine. Every interesting disease is infectious in etiology. What is cool about ID is that it has connections into almost every facet of human culture and history.

I note that at some point I have gone from being the young whippersnapper to the Grandpa Simpson at my hospitals and am one of the few who has been around long enough to be a repository of institutional memory. I remember what it was like 20 plus years ago, when no one consistently washed their hands, when all S. aureus (S. aureui?) were sensitive to beta-lactams and we wore an onion on our belt, as was the style of the day. Oh the changes I have seen.

Besides remembering the not so good old days of my professional career, ID keeps me reminded of how the world used to be in the past. Medicine used to be about the epidemics that would routinely sweep across the world. Polio, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, tuberculosis and on and on. I occasionally see TB but thanks to modern medicine many of these scourges have mostly faded from medical practice in the US. Not a one, I might add, has faded due to the efforts of alt med practitioners.

Influenza still gives me pause. It is, as infections go, quite the tricky virus and it remains a difficult beast to treat and prevent. Which is a drag as it remains one of the more consistent causes of infectious morbidity and mortality. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Epidemiology, History, Science and Medicine

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The Quack Full Employment Act

Quacks, charlatans and snake oil salesmen are closely watching “The Colorado Natural Health Consumer Protection Act,” Senate Bill 13-215 (SB 215) as it wends its way through the Colorado Legislature. I imagine a few felons about to be released from prison are keeping tabs on the bill too, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute. SB 215 passed the Senate on Tuesday. It will now go on to the House, where it has the support of Rep. Joann Ginal, the mover and shaker behind a bill giving “naturopathic doctors” a right to practice, House Bill 13-1111 (HB 1111). That bill passed the House and is now parked in the Senate awaiting committee assignment.  Apparently, critical thinking skills have abandoned the state capital. Things are looking grim.

If the “Colorado Natural Health Consumer Protection Act” passes, Colorado will become one of a handful of states where anyone can practice medicine. Of course, these laws don’t come out and say that exactly. In fact, the Colorado bill states that if you don’t have a medical license you cannot practice medicine, which in Colorado is defined to include:

Holding out one’s self to the public within this state as being able to diagnose, treat, prescribe for, palliate, or prevent any human disease, ailment, pain, injury, deformity, or physical or mental condition, whether by the use of drugs, surgery, manipulation, electricity, telemedicine, the interpretation of tests, including primary diagnosis of pathology specimens, images, or photographs, or any physical, mechanical, or other means whatsoever; . . . Suggesting, recommending, prescribing, or administering any form of treatment, operation, or healing for the intended palliation, relief, or cure of any physical or mental disease, ailment, injury, condition, or defect of any person . . .

But, as we shall see, what SB 215 actually does is allow rank amateurs to diagnose and treat just about anyone for any disease or condition with means of no known safety or effectiveness. In other words, they can practice medicine, it’s just quack medicine. At the same time, the bill strips away important consumer protections. And guess who’s supporting it? The Colorado Medical Society, although I suppose we can be disappointed but not surprised. The Colorado Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics is remaining neutral. As I said, critical thinking skills have decamped from Denver.

Pay attention folks. Passage of this bill will energize the Health Freedom crowd. They’ll be in your state soon.

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Posted in: Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation

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Does Brain Training Work?

Websites such as Luminosity.com make some bold promises about the effectiveness of computer-based brain-training programs. The site claims:

“Harness your brain’s neuroplasticity and train your way to a brighter life”
“Your brain’s abilities are unique. That’s why your Personalized Training Program adapts to fit your brain and your life goals.”
“Just 10 hours of Lumosity training can create drastic improvements. Track your own amazing progress with our sophisticated tools.”

Wow – in just 10 hours I can become smarter by playing fun video games personalized to my brain. I’m a huge fan of video games, and I would love to justify this hobby by saying that I’m training my brain while I play, but what does the scientific evidence have to say about such claims?

Not surprisingly, the published evidence is complex and mixed.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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