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Archive for June, 2013

Homeopathy Ramblings

There needs to be a SCAM index, some quantitative tool, a formula for ranking the SCAMs, so one SCAM could reign supreme, to be definitely declared the the goofiest of all SCAMs. Perhaps (number of adherents)x(number of Pubmed publications)x(age of SCAM) all divided by a plausibility factor.

Homeopathy would win and any SCAM index that did not rank homeopathy at number one would have to put up a very convincing argument indeed that their formula was not somehow fundamentally flawed.1

For first time readers, homeopathy is based on several fictions, totally divorced from reality, made up in the 1800′s.

The first law,2 with less reality than Joe Abercrombie’s, is, “similia similibus curentur,” or “let like be cured by like”. Substances which cause specific symptoms can be used to cure diseases which cause the same symptoms.  If like cures like, I am uncertain what moonlight, one of many fanciful homeopathic nostrums, would cure. Lycanthropy? (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy

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Six reasons CAM practitioners should not be licensed

States license “complementary and alternative” (CAM) practitioners (chiropractors, naturopaths, acupuncturists/TCM practitioners and homeopaths) via the magic of “legislative alchemy.” Ironically, licensing statutes are enacted based on the states’ constitutional power to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. Yet these CAM practice acts actually increase public vulnerability to unsafe and ineffective health care practices.  It is, in short, a bad idea.  (A point we’ve discussed many times on SBM.) Here are six reasons why.  Feel free to add to the list.

1. Practice acts grant CAM practitioners a broad scope of practice, including legalization of scientifically implausible and unproven (or disproven) diagnostic methods, diagnoses and treatments.

Like medical doctors, dentists and nurses, CAM practitioners must practice under licensing legislation, also referred to as a practice act. Otherwise, they risk prosecution for the unlicensed practice of medicine or other licensed profession unless they are exempted by one of the so-called “health freedom” laws, which basically give everyone the right to practice medicine.

Chiropractic practice acts incorporate the absurd notion that patients are suffering from “subluxations” that adversely affect their (or their children’s) health. Acupuncture practice acts are based on the equally absurd notion that the body contains “meridians” which, when blocked, cause ill health, but can be relieved by sticking people with needles. Naturopaths can diagnose and treat conditions they invented out of whole cloth, such as chronic yeast overgrowth, ubiquitous “food sensitivities,” and adrenal fatigue. Homeopaths can treat patients with expensive little bottles of water. (You can find out much more about these CAM practices in the pull-down menu accessed via the “Categories” tab to the right of this post.)

Although there are exceptions, most practice acts grant CAM providers the right to diagnose and treat any patient, no matter what age or physical condition, suffering from any disease or condition, as long as the disease or condition is described in the terms of the practice act and the treatment is within the scope of practice. This is perhaps best illustrated by examples. Suppose a patient sees a chiropractor for vertigo. The chiropractor is legally allowed to diagnose the cause of vertigo as one or more subluxations of the spine and to treat the patient with adjustments. What if the patient sees an acupuncturist? If the acupuncturist diagnoses blockage of “qi” as the cause of vertigo and performs acupuncture to unblock the “qi,” the acupuncturist has done nothing outside his scope of practice. And if the patient sees a naturopath? The naturopath is free to diagnose, for example, “toxins” as the cause of the vertigo and proceed to treat these toxins with colonic irrigation. How about a homeopath? Same result: the patient is treated with what is essentially water. None of this will address the patient’s vertigo but it is all perfectly legal. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Auditory Integration Training

Finding a simple fix for complex problems is highly appealing, which drives a persistent market in simple fixes, whether or not they are actually effective. The growing “brain training” industry is an example of this – the concept being that performing simple tasks, such as playing particular games, can have wide-ranging cognitive benefits. Unfortunately the evidence has not been kind to this notion.

Related to the brain training concept is auditory integration training. One permutation of this, the Tomatis Method, describes it this way:

The sound message is correctly heard but poorly analyzed in an emotional framework. The brain protects itself by constructing barriers that can result in the development of various disorders.
You can do the listening sessions repeatedly by using specially designed devices that stimulate the brain and progressively help it more effectively analyze the sensory message.
Your ear is not used only for hearing. It also stimulates your brain and establishes your balance. Well-tuned listening is therefore an essential component for promoting personal development.

This is a common approach to marketing such therapies – argue that one factor is a dominant cause of a host of problems, describe the method for addressing that one factor, which then leads to a happy, healthy, fulfilling life. This marketing formula appears well established. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Meet Your Microbes: uBiome Offers New Service

We are not alone. Walt Whitman didn’t know how right he was when he said, “I contain multitudes.” The microbes on and in our bodies outnumber our own cells 10:1.  Perhaps that creeps you out. Perhaps that makes you curious to know just who all these billions of creatures are that are using your body for a home and a transportation device.

For just $89 you can learn what’s in your gut, nose, mouth, skin, genitals…or sample anything!

The offer comes from uBiome, a “citizen science startup” that has scientific goals somewhere down the line, but for the moment is happy to just provide a personal service, to sequence your microbiome and tell you how you compare to others. The current utility of this offering is questionable. It’s just not ready for prime time. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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On humility, confidence, and science-based surgery

Every so often, the reality of trying to maintain a career in science-based medicine interferes with the fun that is writing for this blog. Basically, what happened is that I spent the entire weekend working on three different grant applications and, by the time Sunday night rolled around, I was too exhausted to write what I had originally planned on writing. Fortunately, one advantage of having been blogging so long and also having blogged under a pseudonym over at my not-so-super-secret other blog is that there’s a lot of material which is pretty damned good, if I do say so myself, that I can draw on for just these situations. Even better, it’s old enough that it’s unlikely that most of you have actually come across it before, which makes it new to you (well, at least most of you). As a special bonus, the jumping off point was a post by an occasional contributor to this blog, Peter Lipson. Actually, I wish Peter would contribute more regularly, but he’s too busy moving on to bigger things at Forbes.

This time around, I’m half-recycling, half-revising a post that was a bit more navel-gazing than usual. However, as the only surgeon on SBM I think it’s actually useful every now and then to discuss the trials and tribulations of practicing science-based surgery. It began when Peter wrote an excellent meditation on a topic that’s always been a difficult issue for me to face as a surgeon, namely how one balances confidence in one’s ability with humility in the face of disease and uncertain science. He started with a spot-on observation:

The practice of medicine requires a careful mix of humility and confidence. Finding this balance is very tricky, as humility can become halting indecision and confidence can become reckless arrogance. Teaching these traits is a combination of drawing out a young doctor’s natural strengths, tamping down their weaknesses, and tossing in some didactic knowledge.

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Posted in: Medical Academia, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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Coenzyme Q10 for heart failure: The hype and the science

Could a product sold as a dietary supplement really be delivering the benefits that advocates have claimed for decades? That’s what you might be wondering about coenzyme Q10, following recent stories like:

What’s caused all the excitement about CoQ10 is the Q-SYMBIO trial, more properly called “The effect of coenzyme Q10 on morbidity and mortality in chronic heart failure”, presented at the European Society of Cardiology conference last month. I’d normally wait for the full article to come out, and will review it if possible at that time, but the results are too interesting to ignore so I’ll dive into the study and the reaction – which is equally as interesting for advocates of science-based medicine. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements

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Acupuncture Doesn’t Work

About a year ago the editors of Anesthesia & Analgesia solicited a written debate on whether or not acupuncture is effective or simply an elaborate placebo. Four experienced acupuncture researchers agreed to write the pro-acupuncture article, Wang, Harris, Lin and Gan. They asked David Colquhoun to write the con position, and David asked me to write it with him (which, of course, I enthusiastically agreed to do).

The article is fortunately published in open access, and so I can reprint it here (full article is below). What I think David and I convincingly demonstrated is that, according to the usual standards of medicine, acupuncture does not work.

Let me explain what I mean by that. Clinical research can never prove that an intervention has an effect size of zero. Rather, clinical research assumes the null hypothesis, that the treatment does not work, and the burden of proof lies with demonstrating adequate evidence to reject the null hypothesis. So, when being technical, researchers will conclude that a negative study “fails to reject the null hypothesis.”

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Posted in: Acupuncture

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“Sense and nonsense” about alternative medicine in USA Today

Sometimes, between blogging, a demanding day (and night) job doing surgery and science, and everything else, I embarrass myself. Sure, sometimes I embarrass myself by saying something that, in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t. More often, I embarrass myself by letting things slide that I shouldn’t. For instance, when friends send me a prepublication copy of their books, I should damned well read them, don’t you think? So it was that Paul Offit sent me a copy of his latest book, which just hit the bookstores and online outlets this week, Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, and I haven’t finished it. Oh, I’ve read a good chunk of it, but it’s not a huge book (around 335 pages); so I should have finished it by now, particularly since it’s quite good. My failure to properly read and plug the book aside, I’m glad to see that the book’s getting attention in a large media outlet, namely USA Today, in an article by Liz Szabo Book raises alarms about alternative medicine. There’s also a companion piece How to guard against a quack. I figure that the least I can do is to plug Dr. Offit’s book and the USA Today story in which he is featured, just as Harriet plugged his recent speaking appearance.

It’s also nice that Steve Novella and I were both interviewed. Now, excuse me while I get back to doing what I really should have had finished a month or two ago: Reading Dr. Offit’s excellent book.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements

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Tag Away

Skin tags

Skin tags

Skin tags (acrochordon) are benign growths, often raised on a pedicle with a tiny stem. 46% of the population has one or more of them.  They are usually ignored, but some people think they are ugly and want to get rid of them, and sometimes the lesions rub on clothing and become irritated. Never fear! Tag Away is here!

I saw it advertised on TV.  They said it is “not available in stores.” But they only meant their special TV offer is not available in stores. You can buy Tag Away on Amazon.com, at Walgreens, at Walmart, and elsewhere. Tag Away is an all-natural product that promises to remove unsightly skin tags painlessly. It comes in a 15 cc bottle and is applied with a cotton swab 3 times daily for 3-8 weeks. One website claims:

One of the secrets of this product’s amazing success rate is Thuka [sic] Occidentalis, which is world-renowned for its ability to eradicate even the largest, most unsightly skin tags.

That’s not true. It doesn’t have an amazing success rate, it’s not world-renowned, and there’s no evidence that it can actually remove skin tags of any size. (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy

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More bad science in the service of anti-GMO activism

More bad science in the service of anti-GMO activism

I never used to write much about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) before. I still don’t do it that often. For whatever reason, it just hasn’t been on my radar very much. That seems to be changing, however. It’s not because I went seeking this issue out (although I must admit that I first became interested in genetic engineering when I was in junior high and read a TIME Magazine cover article about it back in the 1970s), but rather because in my reading I keep seeing it more and more in the context of anti-GMO activists using bad science and bad reasoning to justify a campaign to demonize GMOs. Now, I don’t have a dog in this hunt, (Forgive me, I have no idea why I like that expression, given that I don’t hunt.) I really don’t. I was, not too long ago, fairly agnostic on the issue of GMOs and their safety, although, truth be told, because I have PhD in a biomedical science and because my lab work has involved molecular biology and genetics since I was a graduate student in the early 1990s, I found the claims of horrific harm attributable to GMOs not particularly convincing, but hadn’t bothered to take that deep a look into them. It was not unlike my attitude towards the the claims that cell phones cause cancer a few years ago, before I looked into them and noted the utter lack of a remotely-plausible mechanism and uniformly negative studies except for a group in Sweden with a definite ax to grind on the issue. Back then, I realized that there wasn’t really a plausible mechanism by which radio waves from cell phones could cause cancer in that the classic mechanisms by which ionizing radiation can break DNA molecular bonds and cause mutations don’t apply, but I didn’t rule out a tiny possibility that there might be an as-yet unappreciated mechanism by which long term exposure to radio waves might contribute to cancer. I still don’t, by the way, which has gotten me into the odd kerfuffle with some skeptics and one physicist, but I still view the likelihood that cell phone radiation can cause cancer as being just a bit more plausible than homeopathy.

As was the case for the nonexistent cell phone-cancer link, there has now been a steady drip-drip-drip of bad studies touted by anti-GMO activists as “evidence” that GMOs are the work of Satan that will corrupt or kill us all (and make us fat, to boot). Not too long ago, I came across one such study, a truly execrable excuse for science by Gilles-Eric Séralini at the University of Caen purporting to demonstrate that Roundup-resistant genetically modified maize can cause horrific tumors in rats. I looked at the methods and conclusions and what I found was some of the worst science I had ever seen, every bit as bad as the quack “science” used by the antivaccine movement. It wasn’t for nothing that I made the comparison, because the anti-GMO movement is very much like the antivaccine movement and the cranks who claim that cell phone radiation causes cancer. As if to demonstrate that very point, last week I came across an article by the all-purpose crank to rule all cranks, Mike Adams, at NaturalNews.com entitled GMO feed turns pig stomachs to mush! Shocking photos reveal severe damage caused by GM soy and corn:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Nutrition, Science and the Media

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