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Closing out 2012 with a bit of fun: Do you want some quantum with that pseudoscience?

today is the last day of 2012. As I contemplated what I’d write for my last post of 2012, I wondered what to do. Should I do a “year in review” sort of post? Naahh. Too trite and too much work. Should I just do what I normally do? There are, after all, many topics that are out there, some of them still holdovers from before the holiday season. I can’t get to them all, even between this blog and my not-so-super-secret other blog. I thought about it a minute, but then rejected that possibility. So I decided just to cover one of them. After all, when years begin and end are human constructs, and there’s nothing special about today other than that society has decided that it is the last day of the year, and tradition mandates that a significant proportion of the population will gather before midnight to get drunk and stupid. I’m boring that way, rarely doing anything on New Years Eve other than sitting in front of the TV with my wife and watching the ball drop in Times Square. Then I thought: Oh, what the heck? Why not take on something a bit…different for a change? Maybe even get a bit silly? At least I can finish off the year with a bit of fun. Who knows? I might even be able to be far more concise than usual? (Actually, that might be asking too much.) Besides, the topics I tend to take on here are almost always serious; so a little amusement would be good before diving into the science and pseudoscience that will certainly pop up in 2013.

If there’s one thing about “alternative” medicine, “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or “integrative medicine” that’s always puzzled me, it’s just how gullible some practitioners must think their clients are. In some cases, they might know their customers every bit as well as a car salesman knows his clients or an author knows his readers, but in actuality most people who fall for alt-med are no more gullible than average. However, some words seem to impress more than ever, as promoters of alt-med scramble to appropriate impressive-sounding science terms into their woo. I’ve seen a lot of them. So has Mark Crislip.

Among the favorite real science term that quacks love to appropriate is “quantum.” I blame Deepak Chopra. Although I highly doubt he was the first promoter of alternative medicine and various New Age thought to use and abuse the term “quantum” as a seemingly scientific justification of what in reality is nothing more than ancient mystical thinking gussied up with a quantum overcoat to hide its lack of science, Chopra has arguably done the most to popularize the term among the science-challenged set. In Chopra’s world, the word “quantum” functions like a magical talisman that explains ™everything because in the quantum world anything can happen. Actually, I should clarify. While it’s true that many bizarre and wondrous things can be explained through quantum theory (such as quantum entanglement), it is not, as Chopra and his many imitators would have you believe, a “get out of jail free” card for any magical thinking you can imagine, and quantum effects do not work the way people like Chopra (say, Lionel Milgrom, who seems to think that homeopathy works through quantum entanglement between practitioner, remedy, and patient) would like you to think.

Posted in: Basic Science, Health Fraud, Humor

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Anti-psychiatry and anti-vaccine activists shamelessly taking advantage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings

Quacks detest science-based medicine (SBM) in general, but there are certain specialties that they detest more than others. For instance, you won’t find too many quacks attacking trauma surgery because even they know that when a person’s body has been on the losing end of a confrontation with a bullet or a car, no amount of laying on of hands, homeopathic nostrums, “energy healing,” or herbal remedies are going to stop the hemorrhage, mend broken bones, or repair holes in various internal organs. That’s why even homeopaths will concede that “allopathic medicine” is good for emergencies. It’s also why sketches like this one resonate:

However, from there the distrust of promoters of unscientific and pseudoscientific medical systems and treatment modalities for SBM appears to increase in direct proportion to the urgency and need for direct physical repair of damaged organs, with the possible exception of cancer, for which the standard physical treatment (surgery) is attacked nearly as much as chemotherapy.

Be that as it may, arguably the specialty most attacked by quacks is psychiatry. Many are the reasons, some legitimate, many not. For example, the Church of Scientology in particular despises psychiatry, even going so far as to maintain through its anti-psychiatry front group the Citizens’ Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) a risibly nonsensical “museum” in Hollywood dedicated to psychiatry that they charmingly call Psychiatry: An Industry of Death. It’s so ridiculously, painfully over-the-top, a veritable self-parody of anti-psychiatry hyperbole, that it inadvertently undermines the very attacks on psychiatry frequently leveled by Scientologists and quacks that it’s meant to reinforce. Indeed, not having visited its website for several years, I notice that the CCHR has totally revamped it, now including a virtual 3D tour of the museum, along with video clips from its many “exhibits” available online. I’ll have to file that away for later blog fodder, because the misinformation, cherry picking, and pseudoscience flow freely, as one would expect from a Scientology propaganda project. In the meantime, suffice to say that it’s not just the Church of Scientology that despises psychiatry. It’s founder L. Ron Hubbard and his disciples merely represent the most ridiculously over-the-top and vociferous anti-psychiatry group that I’m currently aware of.

Let’s face it, psychiatry hasn’t always had the best history. It’s a very hard to study human behavior and disorders of human behavior in a rigorous fashion, but to my mind that didn’t excuse the the widespread acceptance for many decades of the ideas of Sigmund Freud, which were little removed from pseudoscience in many respects. Also, psychiatry has not always had the best history, particularly in the early part of this century. Too often, psychiatry has been used as a tool of control rather than a means of helping people who are suffering. Perhaps the worst example is the misuse of psychiatry by various totalitarian regimes, be it the Nazis using it as a primary tool of its T4 euthanasia program or the Soviet Union declaring enemies of the state to be mentally ill and shipping them off to Gulags.

Although there is a ways to go, however, psychiatry in 2012 is much better than psychiatry, say, 50 or 75 years ago. It wasn’t so long ago that, popularized by Walter Freeman, thousands of “ice pick lobotomies” were performed for all manner of indications, few of which had what we would consider to be compelling scientific support to back them up. Over the last half-century, better psychiatric drugs to treat different conditions have been developed, leading to their widespread use for a number of indications.

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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A truly homeopathic defense of homeopathy

I realize that I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating. Homeopathy is the perfect quackery. The reason that homeopathy is so perfect as a form of quackery is because it is quite literally nothing. On second thought, I suppose that it’s not exactly nothing. It is, after all, water or whatever other diluent that homeopaths use (usually ethanol). However, thanks to some basic laws of physics and chemistry and a little thing known as Avogadro’s number, any homeopathic dilution greater than 12C (twelve serial 100-fold dilutions) is incredibly unlikely to contain even a single molecule of starting compound. That unlikeliness reaches truly astonishing levels as we reach the common homeopathic dilution of 30C, which is the equivalent of a 1060-fold dilution. Given that that little thing known as Avogadro’s number, which describes how many molecules of a compound are in a mole, is only approximately 6 x 1023, a 30C dilution is on the order of 1036- to 1037-fold higher than Avogadro’s number. Even assuming that a homeopath started with a mole of remedy before diluting (unlikely, given the high molecular weight of most of the organic compounds that can serve as homeopathic remedies), the odds that a single molecule could remain behind after the serial dilution and succussion process is infinitesimal. Appropriately enough, the “law” in homeopathy that states that diluting a remedy will make it stronger is the law of infinitesimals.

It is also the reason that homeopathy is nothing.

Homeopaths have known these facts for many decades. Anyone who is any sort of a scientist or has an understanding of science, when confronted with these simple, well-established physical laws, might—just might—start to rethink his belief in something that is so utterly implausible from a scientific standpoint. Indeed, homeopathy is about as close to impossible as anything I can imagine, because for it to “work” multiple well-established laws of physics and chemistry would have to be not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Yet, as Richard Dawkins famously put it, undeterred, homeopaths bravely paddle up the river of pseudoscience and invent explanations to “explain” how homeopathy could work, the most famous of which is the so-called “memory of water,” in which the water in the homeopathic remedy remembers all the good bits meant to heal but, as Tim Minchin so famously put it, somehow forgets all the poo that’s been in it. Homeopathy is truly magical thinking, which is why I love to use it as an illustrative example of quackery. Not only is it magical thinking, but because it is nothing but water, it’s a very useful educational example for placebo effects and the general types of fallacious arguments quacks and pseudoscientists make. Apparently it’s time for another one.

Posted in: Basic Science, Homeopathy

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The NIH funding process: “Conformity” and “mediocrity”?

When we refer to “science-based medicine” (SBM), it is a very conscious choice to emphasize that good medicine should be based on a solid foundation of science. The name was coined to contrast the difference between the current evidence-based medicine (EBM) paradigm, which fetishizes randomized clinical trial evidence above all else and frequently ignores prior plausibility based on well-established basic science, and the SBM paradigm, which takes prior plausibility into account. The purpose of this post will not be to resurrect old discussions on these differences, but before I attend to the study at hand I bring this up to emphasize that progress in science-based medicine requires progress in science. That means all levels of biological (and even non-biological) basic science, which forms the foundation upon which translational science and clinical trials can be built. Without a robust pipeline of basic science progress upon which to base translational research and clinical trials, progress in SBM will slow and even grind to a halt.

That’s why, in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is so critical. The NIH funds large amounts of biomedical research each year, which means that what the NIH will and will not fund can’t help but have a profound effect shaping the pipeline of the basic and preclinical research that ultimately leads to new treatments and cures. Moreover, NIH funding has a profound effect on the careers of biomedical researchers and clinician-scientists, as having the “gold standard” NIH grant known as the R01 is viewed as a prerequisite for tenure and promotion in many universities and academic medical centers. Certainly this is the case for basic scientists; for clinician-scientists, having an R01 is certainly highly prestigious, but less of a career-killer if an investigator is unable to secure one. That’s why NIH funding levels and how hard (or easy) it is to secure an NIH grant, particularly an R01, are perennial obsessions among those of us in the biomedical research field. It can’t be otherwise, given the centrality of the NIH to research in the U.S.

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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Now that Burzynski has gotten off in 2012, Burzynski The Movie will spawn a sequel in 2013

About a year ago, I became interested in a physician named Stanislaw Burzynski who has been treating cancer with compounds that he calls “antineoplastons” for over three decades without, in my opinion, ever having ever produced any compelling evidence that antineoplastons have significant anticancer activity. Although I had been vaguely aware of Burzynski and his activities, it was the first time that I had looked into them in a big way.

Having found very few skeptical, science-based takes on Burzynski and having noted that the Quackwatch entries on Burzynski (1, 2, 3) were hopelessly out of date, I wrote a trilogy of posts about him, starting with a review of an execrably bad movie made by a simultaneously credulous yet cynical independent writer, producer, and director named Eric Merola whose primary business, appropriately enough, is mainly marketing. The movie was Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is A Serious Business, a “documentary” (and I’m being polite here) that I characterized at the time as a bad movie and bad P.R. In brief, I saw this movie as a hagiography, a propaganda film so ham-fisted that, if she were still alive, it would easily simultaneously make Leni Riefenstahl blush at its blatantness and feel nauseated how truly awful it was from a strictly film making standpoint. It was also chock full of highly dubious science, in particular Burzynski’s latest venture, which is to sell “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy” similarly lacking in oncological insight, so much so that I observed at the time that it was as though Dr. Burzynski read a book called Personalized Cancer Therapy for Dummies and decided he is an expert in genomics-based tailoring of targeted therapies to individual cancer patients. Finally, I completed the trilogy by pointing out that lately Burzynski has been rebranding an orphan drug that showed mild to moderate promise as an anticancer therapy.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Clinical Trials

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A holiday round in the mammography debate

There are times when the best-laid blogging plans of mice and men often go awry, and this isn’t always a bad thing. As the day on which so many Americans indulge in mass consumption of tryptophan-laden meat in order to give thanks approached, I had tentatively planned on doing an update on Stanislaw Burzynski, given that he appears to have slithered away from justice yet again. Then what to my wondering eyes should appear in my e-mail in box but news of a study that practically grabbed me by my collars, shook me, and demanded that I blog about it. As if to emphasize the point, suddenly e-mails started appearing by people who had seen stories about the study and, for reasons that I still can’t figure out after all these years, were interested on my take on the study. Yes, I realize that I’m a breast cancer surgeon and therefore considered an expert on the topic of the study, mammography. I also realize that I’ve written about it a few times before. Even so, it never ceases to amaze me, even after all these years, that anyone gives a rodential posterior about what I think. Then I started getting a couple of e-mails from people at work, and I knew that Burzynski had to wait or that he would be relegated to my not-so-secret other blog (I haven’t decided yet).

As is my usual habit, I’ll set the study up by citing how it’s being spun in the press. My local home town paper seems as good a place to begin as any, even though the story was reprinted from USA Today. The title of its coverage was Many women receiving unnecessary breast cancer treatment, study shows, with the article released the day before the study came out in the New England Journal of Medicine:

Posted in: Cancer, Public Health

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Getting NCCAM’s money’s worth: Some results of NCCAM-funded studies of homeopathy

As hard as it is to believe, the Science-Based Medicine blog that you’re so eagerly reading is fast approaching its fifth anniversary of existence. The very first post here was a statement of purpose by Steve Novella on January 1, 2008, and my very first post was a somewhat rambling introduction that in retrospect is mildly embarrassing to me. It is what it is, however. The reason I mention this is because I want to take a trip down memory lane in order to follow up on one of my earliest posts for SBM, which was entitled The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM): Your tax dollars hard at work. Specifically, I want to follow up on one specific study I mentioned that was funded by NCCAM.

Even though I not-so-humbly think that, even nearly five years later, my original post is worth reading in its entirety (weighing in at only 3,394 words, it’s even rather short—for me, at least), I’ll spare you that and cut straight to the chase, the better to discuss the study. It is a study of homeopathy. Yes, in contrast to the protestations of Dr. Josephine Briggs, the current director of NCCAM, that NCCAM doesn’t fund studies of such pure pseudoscience as homeopathy anymore (although she does apparently meet with homeopaths for “balance”), prior to Dr. Briggs’ tenure NCCAM actually did fund studies of the magic water with mystical memory known as homeopathy. Two grants in particular I singled out for scorn. The principal investigator for both grants was Iris Bell, who is faculty at Andrew Weil’s center of woo at the University of Arizona. The first was an R21 grant for a project entitled Polysomnography in homeopathic remedy effects (NIH grant 1 R21 AT000388).

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy

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“Moneyball,” the 2012 election, and science- and evidence-based medicine

Regular readers of my other blog probably know that I’m into more than just science, skepticism, and promoting science-based medicine (SBM). I’m also into science fiction, computers, and baseball, not to mention politics (at least more than average). That’s why our recent election, coming as it did hot on the heels of the World Series in which my beloved Detroit Tigers utterly choked got me to thinking. Actually, it was more than just that. It was also an article that appeared a couple of weeks before the election in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled Moneyball and Medicine, by Christopher J. Phillips, PhD, Jeremy A. Greene, MD, PhD, and Scott H. Podolsky, MD. In it, they compare what they call “evidence-based” baseball to “evidence-based medicine,” something that is not as far-fetched as one might think.

“Moneyball,” as baseball fans know, refers to a book by Michael Lewis entitled Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Published in 2003, Moneyball is the story of the Oakland Athletics and their manager Billy Beane and how the A’s managed to field a competitive team even though the organization was—shall we say?—”revenue challenged” compared to big market teams like the New York Yankees. The central premise of the book was that that the collective wisdom of baseball leaders, such as managers, coaches, scouts, owners, and general managers, was flawed and too subjective. Using rigorous statistical analysis, the A’s front office determined various metrics that were better predictors of offensive success than previously used indicators. For example, conventional wisdom at the time valued stolen bases, runs batted in, and batting average, but the A’s determined that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were better predictors, and cheaper to obtain on the free market, to boot. As a result, the 2002 Athletics, with a payroll of $41 million (the third lowest in baseball), were able to compete in the market against teams like the Yankees, which had a payroll of $125 million. The book also discussed the A’s farm system and how it determined which players were more likely to develop into solid major league players, as well as the history of sabermetric analysis, a term coined by one of its pioneers Bill James after SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. Sabermetrics is basically concerned with determining the value of a player or team in current or past seasons and with predicting the value of a player or team in the future.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The result of the Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT): As underwhelming as expected

Chelation therapy.

It’s one of the most common quackeries out there, used by a wide variety of practitioners for a wide variety of ailments blamed on “heavy metal toxicity.” Chelation therapy, which involves using chemicals that can bind to the metal ions and allow them to be excreted by the kidneys, is actually standard therapy for certain types of acute heavy metal poisoning, such as iron overload due to transfusion, aluminum overload due to hemodialysis, copper toxicity due to Wilson’s disease, acute heavy metal toxicity, and a handful of other indications.

My personal interest in chelation therapy developed out of its use by unscrupulous practitioners who blamed autism on the mercury-containing thimerosal preservative that used to be in many childhood vaccines until 2001 but has since all but disappeared from such vaccines except for one vaccine (the flu vaccine, for which a thimerosal-free alternative is available) and in trace amounts in some other vaccines. Mercury became a convenient bogeyman to add to the list of “toxins” antivaccinationists hype in vaccines. In fact, my very first post after I introduced myself on this very blog discussed the idea that mercury in vaccines was a significant cause of autism and autism spectrum disorders, and I’ve periodically written about such things ever since, in particular the bad science of Mark and David Geier, whose idea that chemical castration of children with Lupron “works” against “mercury-induced” autism is based on a chemically ridiculous idea that somehow testosterone binds mercury and makes it harder to chelate. Unfortunately, this particular autism quackery has real consequences and has been responsible for the death of a child.

Chelation isn’t just for autism, however. Despite many practitioners advertising it for autism, cancer (often with dubious studies that I might have to take a look at), Alzheimer’s disease (which Hugh Fudenberg has blamed on the flu vaccine, a claim parroted by Bill Maher, of course!), and just about every ailment under the sun, it’s easy to forget that the original use for chelation therapy promoted by “alternative medicine” practitioners was for cardiovascular disease. When it is used for coronary artery disease or autism, on a strictly stoichiometric and pharmacological basis, it is extremely implausible. Moreover, it is not without potential complications, including renal damage and cardiac arrhythmias due to sudden drops in calcium levels. Such arrhythmias can and have led to death in children, and in adults complications such as renal failure and death.

Posted in: Clinical Trials

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The American Medical Student Association: On “integrating” quackery with science-based medicine

There’s a saying in medicine that we frequently hear when a newer, more effective therapy supplants an older therapy or an existing therapy is shown not to be as efficacious as was once thought, and it has to do about how long it takes for the use of that therapy to decline. The saying basically says that the therapy won’t die out until the current generation of established physicians retire and are replaced by the new generation coming up through medical schools. From my perspective, it’s a bit of an exaggeration, because in the mere 13 years that I’ve been a real doctor (i.e., an attending physician) our practices in breast cancer surgery has changed markedly. Although certain core principles of breast cancer care remain the same, there have been major changes in terms of how we deal with the axillary lymph nodes, our use of hormone therapy and chemotherapy, and our very understanding of the different subtypes of breast cancer. Of course, I have spent my entire career as faculty at two different NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers; so my experience is not representative of that of most physicians, particularly given that I’m super subspecialized. It’s generally expected that if you’re faculty in an academic medical center you will be at the very least up to date, if not beyond at the cutting edge.

Even so, there is some truth to the observation that it takes the rise of a new generation of physicians to force out certain old ideas, which means that how we train our medical students is of utmost importance. Unfortunately, these days, it is medical students who have become a major force for promoting the “integration” of quackery into medicine (which these days is known as, appropriately enough in a way unintended by its proponents, “integrative medicine”). No, I’m not saying that all or even most medical students are prone to the blandishments of quackademic medicine, but rather that there is a large enough contingent of medical students who have gone beyond being shruggies to become activists for unscientific medicine. There are CAM clubs, CAM interest groups, and student-driven CAM electives.

And then there’s the American Medical Students Association (AMSA), specifically its various initiatives in “integrative medicine.” I fear that each successive generation of medical students is more prone to embracing unscientific medicine than the last.

Posted in: Medical Academia

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