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In which Dr. Gorski is taken to task by an eminent radiologist for his posts on mammography

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Introduction: An unexpected e-mail arrives

One of the consequences of the growing traffic and prominence of this blog over the last few years is that people who would otherwise have probably ignored what I or my partners in blogging write now sometimes actually take notice. Nearly a decade ago, long before I joined this blog as a founding blogger, if I wrote a post criticizing something that a prominent academic said, it was highly unlikely that that person would even become aware of it, much less bother to respond to whatever my criticism was. I was, quite simply, beneath their notice, sometimes happily, sometimes unhappily.

It appears that those days might be over. Last week Dr. Daniel Kopans, a prominent Harvard radiologist and well-known long-time defender of screening mammography, sent me a rather unhappy e-mail complaining about my “attack” on him on this blog, a charge that he repeated in a subsequent e-mail. Before I publish his initial e-mail verbatim (with his permission), I would like to point out that, while it’s true that I did criticize some of Dr. Kopans’ statements rather harshly in my post about the Canadian National Breast Screening Study (CNBSS), even characterizing one statement as a “howler,” I would hardly characterize what I wrote as an “attack.” That to me tends to imply a personal attack. Using Dr. Kopans’ apparent definition, what he has said and written about investigators like those running the CNBSS, as documented in my post, about H. Gilbert Welch, who published a large study in 2012 estimating the extent of overdiagnosis due to mammography, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), the group that in 2009 suggested changing guidelines for routine screening mammography in asymptomatic women to begin at age 50 instead of age 40, would appear to also qualify as “attacks.”

Be that as it may, I also wondered why Dr. Kopans hadn’t noticed my CNBSS post until more than three months after it had originally appeared. Then, the day after I received Dr. Kopans’ e-mail, my Google Alert on mammography popped up an article in the Wall Street Journal by Dr. Kopans entitled “Mammograms Save Lives: Criticism of breast-cancer screenings is more about rationing than rationality.” That’s when I guessed that someone probably had either posted or e-mailed Dr. Kopans a link to my previous post in response to that article. Given the confluence of events, I think it’s a perfect time to discuss both Dr. Kopans’ e-mail and his article, because they cover many of the same issues. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Public Health

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What’s in a name?: NCCAM tries to polish a turd

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What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2

You can clean up a pig, put a ribbon on its tail, spray it with perfume, but it is still a pig.

You can paint a turd red, but it’s still a turd.

There’s a colloquial phrase commonly used to describe an effort to sell or promote something that is so inherently awful or at least so flawed as to be unsalvageable without either a radical rethinking or such a major overhaul that it would be impractical or impossible to do: Polishing a turd. In this, advocates of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) have been very successful. Mark Crislip, in his usual inimitable fashion, just reminded us why CAM is a turd that needs polishing. Unfortunately, on Friday, I learned that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine unveiled a proposal to help it be more efficient in polishing the turd that is CAM through the clever use of language, and it wants your feedback. There were lots of other things that happened over the last few days that tempted me to write about them that will likely have to appear over at my not-so-secret other blog, but this one caught my attention and held it, given that it goes to the very heart of the deceptive use of language that is at the heart of giving CAM the appearance of legitimacy. In this specific case, NCCAM wants a new name. Dr. Briggs wants to rename NCCAM the National Center for Research on Complementary and Integrative Health (NCRCI). (I have no idea why the abbreviation of the proposed new center name isn’t NCRCIH.) Here’s Dr. Briggs explaining the rationale for the proposal and urging feedback by June 6 at http://nccam.nih.gov/about/offices/od/comments. I urge you to watch the whole video, or at least read the transcript:

Thus does Dr. Briggs propose polishing the turd that is NCCAM.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Politics and Regulation

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The false dilemma of David Katz: Abandon patients or abandon science

Dr. David L. Katz is apparently unhappy with me. You remember Dr. Katz, don’t you? If you don’t, I’ll remind you momentarily. If you do, you won’t be surprised. Let me explain a bit first how Dr. Katz recently became aware of me again.

Last week, I posted a short (for me) piece about something that disturbed both Steve Novella and myself, namely Traditional Chinese herbalism at the Cleveland Clinic? What happened to science-based medicine? Steve had blogged about it as well a couple of days earlier. In actuality, it was a post that had originally appeared at my not-so-super-secret other blog, and, in my characteristically slightly arrogant way, I thought it was good enough that it deserved to be showcased here at Science-Based Medicine. To my surprise, Maithri Vengala over at The Healthcare Blog noticed and asked me if I would mind letting her post it over there. Never being one to turn down a request to showcase my work to a wider (or at least different) audience, I gave her my permission. The result was that my post ended up being published here, and I thought nothing more of it.

Until yesterday, that is.

Yesterday, thanks to the magic of Google Alerts, I became aware that Dr. David Katz was very unhappy with my post. At the very least, he strongly disagreed with it, so much so that he felt the need to respond. Naturally, he chose as his venue The Huffington Post, which is well known as a bastion of quackery, antivaccine pseudoscience, and Deepak Chopra-inspired magical thinking, to respond. Indeed, so bad is HuffPo (as it’s “nicknamed”) that Steve Novella and I have both referred to it as waging a “war on medical science,” and HuffPo has been a frequent topic of discussion on this very blog for its abysmal record of publishing pseudoscience, a record that goes back to its very beginning in 2005, when antivaccinationists flocked to the fledgling blog and news site. And that doesn’t even count all the nonsense from Deepak Chopra and even promotion of outright cancer quackery.
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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How “they” view “us”

Over the weekend, I was perusing my Google Alerts, along with various blogs and news websites, looking for my weekly topic, when I noticed a disturbance in the pseudoscience Force. It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed many times before, but, as far as I can tell, I haven’t actually blogged about it here, at least not specifically, although I have mentioned it, particularly in posts about Stanislaw Burzynski. I have, however, blogged about it over at my not-so-super-secret other blog, which means that some of the thoughts (if you can call them that) that I plan to lay down in this post will likely seem familiar to some of you, but I think this is an important enough topic that I should cover it here, too. As arrogant as I might sometimes seem, even I’m not so deluded as to think that the fraction of SBM readers who are regulars at my not-so-super-secret other blog is anything greater than a clear minority, and even for those of you for whom there’s overlap I’ll try to make things different enough to be interesting.

On Friday, Sharon Hill published a post over at Doubtful News entitled Chiropractors get their spine out of place over critique. It’s about how chiropractors have reacted to a post by Steve Salzberg over at Forbes entitled New Medicare Data Reveal Startling $496 Million Wasted On Chiropractors. Salzberg’s blog post was basically about just that, namely the amount of money billed Medicare by chiropractors, information that’s possible to obtain since the government released Medicare billing data for individual practitioners. Salzberg pointed out that half a billion dollars is a lot of money, more than twice as much as what is wasted every year on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM). The result was rapid. Chiropractors swarmed, complaining to Forbes.com, and making the usual threats to sue, much as they actually did sue Simon Singh and, fortunately, saw their lawsuit blow up in their faces.

This, of course, can be looked upon as a purely mercenary protection of turf and livelihood not unlike how Daniel Kopans attacks any study that finds mammography to be less effective than thought (or even ineffective) in decreasing deaths from breast cancer. There is, however, a form of backlash against criticism of pseudoscience that is different and, when I first encountered it, more disturbing to deal with. It’s a level of pure, visceral hatred that is difficult to understand; that is, until you try to put yourself into your “enemy’s” shoes. Consider this post an exercise in doing just that, an exercise that will no doubt shock at least one of our readers.
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Posted in: Cancer, Chiropractic, Critical Thinking, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The Compassionate Freedom of Choice Act: Ill-advised “right to try” goes federal

Not too long ago, I expressed alarm at a series of bills that were popping up like so much kudzu in various state legislatures, namely “right to try” bills. Both Jann Bellamy and I warned that these bills gave a false illusion of hope to patients with terminal illnesses. Basically, these laws claim to grant the “right” of patients with terminal illnesses to access promising experimental medicines that have not yet been approved by the FDA. Indeed, these investigational drugs need merely to have passed phase I trials, and these “right to try” laws would allow them to be used in pretty much any human with a terminal illness who can persuade a pharmaceutical company to let them have such drugs. Of course, as I pointed out, such laws are based on a false premise, namely that there are lots of promising drugs out there that could save lots of lives of terminally ill patients, if only the hidebound FDA would get out of the way and let the people try them. The problem (besides the false assumption behind such laws) is that they are all state laws, and the FDA and federal law still trump state laws with respect to drug approval.

Apparently, advocates of “right to try” laws have gotten around to trying to take care of that little obstacle, too. I’m referring to a federal law under consideration in the House of Representatives and championed by the usual suspects, including the Alliance for Natural Health USA, a “health freedom” group that has yet to see a pro-quackery bill it doesn’t like.

In any case, at the time I originally learned about this bill, HR 4475, which was introduced by Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) and entitled “The Compassionate Freedom of Choice Act of 2014,” its text hadn’t yet been published to the Congressional website. I did learn that the bill has been floating around for a while in various forms (for instance, former Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) apparently introduced it.) Now its text has been published, as Guy Chapman has noted. He calls it a “quack’s charter,” and he’s only off by a bit. The bill doesn’t go quite as far as he believes, but the bill is still plenty bad, man. If enacted, HR 4475 would amend the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by inserting after section 561 (21 U.S.C. 360bbb) the text of HR 4475. This section of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act is entitled “Expanded Access to Unapproved Therapies and Diagnostics,” and it’s the section of the act that regulates exactly that. The interesting thing is that this particular section of existing law is the framework under which the whole system of single patient INDs (also known as “compassionate use exemptions”) is already based. As I’ve described before, single patients can receive promising unapproved drugs under what’s known as a single patient IND, which has to be approved by the Institutional Review Board and the FDA and allows single patients to receive unapproved drugs. You can (and many have) argued that the single patient IND process is too cumbersome and restrictive, but HR 4475 seeks to (mostly) nuke this requirement. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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Traditional Chinese herbalism at the Cleveland Clinic? What happened to science-based medicine?

I don’t recall if I’ve ever mentioned my connection with the Cleveland Clinic Foundation (CCF). I probably have, but just don’t remember it. Long-time readers might recall that I did my general surgery training at Case Western Reserve University at University Hospitals of Cleveland. Indeed, I did my PhD there as well in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. Up the road less than a mile from UH is the Cleveland Clinic. As it turns out, during my stint in Physiology and Biophysics at CWRU, I happened to do a research rotation in a lab at the CCF, which lasted a few months. OK, so it’s not much of a connection. It was over 20 years ago and only lasted a few months, but it’s something that gives me an obvious and blatant hook to start out this post, particularly given the number of cardiac patients I delivered to the CCF back in the early 1990s when I moonlighted as a flight physician for Metro LifeFlight.

Obvious and clunky introduction aside (hey, they can’t all be brilliant; so I’ll settle for nauseatingly self-deprecating), several of my readers have been sending me a link to a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal the other day: A Top Hospital Opens Up to Chinese Herbs as Medicines: Evidence is lacking that herbs are effective. I also noticed that our fearless leader Steve Novella blogged about it and was tempted to let it pass, given that I had seemingly lost my window, but then I realized that there’s always something I can add to a post, even after the topic’s been blogged by Steve Novella. Whether that something is of value or not, I leave to the reader. So here we go. Besides, if this article truly indicates a new trend in academic medical centers, it’s—if you’ll excuse the term—quantum leap in the infiltration of quackademic medicine into formerly reputable medical centers. It’s a depressing thing, and it needs to be publicized.
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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Medical Academia

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Gluten-free skin and beauty products: Extracting cash from the gullible

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Even though yesterday was Easter, and, as unreligious as I am, I was still thinking of taking it easy, there was one target that popped up that I just couldn’t resist. My wife and I were sitting around yesterday reading the Sunday papers and perusing the Internet (as is frequently our wont on Sunday mornings), when I heard a contemptuous harrumph coming from her direction. She then pointed me to an article in our local newspaper entitled Gluten-free beauty products in demand among some customers. Now, I must admit that I haven’t been keeping up with the gluten-free trend, other than how easily it fits within the niche of “autism biomed” quackery, where, apparently, nearly every “biomed” protocol for autistic children demands that gluten be stripped completely from their diets, lest the evil molecule continue to infect them with the dreaded autism. I’ve kept an eye the literature, but haven’t really written about gluten. That’s why I could immediately tell why my wife had called my attention to the article:

Amy Soergel’s lip gloss was making her sick. The problem, she realized, was gluten — hydrologized wheat protein, to be exact. Then she went to the hairdresser who used a shampoo that made her neck burn. Again, it contained gluten.

“There’s hidden gluten in many places you may not consider,” including stamp and envelope glues, toothpaste and lip balms, said Soergel, who has a store, Naturally Soergel’s, near Pittsburgh that caters to people with allergies. Indeed, for people with celiac disease, a bit of gluten that might get swallowed from a lipstick or a stream of shampoo in the shower can be enough to cause illness.

A slew of gluten-free skin care products have come on the market, including items from well-known companies such as Murad, Dr. Hauschka, EO, MyChelle, Suntegrity, Acure and derma-e. Many are sold in Whole Foods and other health food stores. If they’ve been certified by a third-party agency, an icon usually appears on the packaging.

Whole Foods. Of course, it had to be Whole Foods (among others). Let’s take a look at the whole gluten-free movement and then at the end I’ll revisit the question of gluten-free cosmetics and skin products.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Nutrition

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Bill and Hillary Clinton go woo with Dr. Mark Hyman and “functional medicine”

Dug the Dog strikes again.

I was all set to write about a mass of pseudoscience published in a prominent online news/comment site, one that addressed a topic near and not-so-dear to my heart, mainly EMF and cell phone radiation as an alleged cause of cancer and many health problems. Ready to rip into it with gusto, I did have a bit of reservation because I had recently addressed the very same topic when Dr. Oz engaged in a bit of fear mongering about it. It must have been posted to various breast cancer forums or forums dedicated to discussing the purported health issues due to cell phones, because every so often, for the last three months, outraged commenters would show up and lash out at me. But, then, I was made aware of an article that appeared in the New York Times a couple of days ago that brought up memories of something I haven’t written about for a long time.

Squirrel!

Besides, I can always blog about the other execrable article on my not-so-super-secret other blog. That’s what it’s there for.

In any case, the NYT article appeared, appropriately enough, in the Fashion & Style section, not the Health section, and is entitled “He Tells the Clintons How to Lose a Little. Dr. Mark Hyman: Advising the Clintons on Their Health.” It’s written by Amy Chozick, a reporter I’ve never heard of, probably because I know the names of most, if not all, of the health reporters for the NYT and national news outlets, but am blissfully unfamiliar with reporters covering the fashion and style beat. Actually, it turns out that Chozick is a political reporter “with a focus on covering Hillary Clinton.” Obviously her focus isn’t on covering health, as her article makes clear.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Mammography and the acute discomfort of change

As I write this, I am attending the 2014 meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR, Twitter hashtag #AACR14) in San Diego. Basically, it’s one of the largest meetings of basic and translational cancer researchers in the world. I try to go every year, and pretty much have succeeded since around 1998 or 1999. As an “old-timer” who’s attended at least a dozen AACR meetings and presented many abstracts, I can see various trends and observe the attitudes of researchers involved in basic research, contrasting them to that of clinicians. One difference is, as you might expect, that basic and translational researchers tend to embrace new findings and ideas much more rapidly than clinicians do. This is not unexpected because the reason scientists and clinical researchers actually do research is because they want to discover something new. Physicians who are not also researchers become physicians because they want to take care of patients. Because they represent the direct interface between (hopefully) science-based medicine and actual patients, they have a tendency to be more conservative about embracing new findings or rejecting current treatments found not to be effective.

While basic scientists are as human anyone else and therefore just as prone to be suspicious and dismissive of findings that do not jibe with their scientific world view, they can (usually) eventually be convinced by experimental observations and evidence. As I’ve said many times before, the process is messy and frequently combative, but eventually science wins out, although sometimes it takes far longer than in retrospect we think it should have, an observations frequently exploited by advocates of pseudoscience and quackery to claim that their pseudoscience or quackery must be taken seriously because “science was wrong before.” To this, I like to paraphrase Dara O’Briain’s famous adage that just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale that you want. But I digress (although only a little). In accepting the validity of science that indicates either that a medical intervention that was commonly used either doesn’t help, doesn’t help as much as we thought it did, or can even be harmful, they have to contend with the normal human reluctance to admit to oneself that what one was doing before might not have been of value (or might have been of less value than previously believed) or that, worst of all, might have caused harm. Or, to put it differently, physicians understandably become acutely uncomfortable when faced with evidence that the benefit-risk profile of common treatment or test might not be as favorable as previously believed. Add to that the investment that various specialties have in such treatments, which lead to financial conflicts of interest (COI) and desires to protect turf (and therefore income), and negative evidence can have a hard go among clinicians.
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Bob and I are now published in Skeptical Inquirer

As regular readers know, I was quite happy that Skeptical Inquirer (SI) agreed to publish articles by Bob Blaskiewicz and myself about the highly dubious cancer doctor in Houston known as Stanislaw Burzynski. Indeed, Bob and I have been busily doing our best to promote it, appearing on various podcasts, including Point of Inquiry and, most recently, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, where once again we’ve called on skeptics to help us put pressure on our elected officials to prevent Dr. Burzynski from continuing to take advantage of desperate cancer patients, many with incurable disease, particularly incurable brain cancers. It’s in this spirit that I write this uncharacteristically brief post.

My only disappointment thus far was that SI is still largely print-only, which meant that I could only expose our article to subscribers and urge nonsubscribers to pick up a copy (which, by the way, you can still do, as I believe the issue with Bob’s and my articles is still on the stands). Given that my article was designed to be a primer on Stanislaw Burzynski for skeptics, while Bob’s article was intended to make suggestions about what you as supporters of science-based medicine can do to try to protect cancer patients, I’m now happy to announce that SI has published both of our articles online:

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Posted in: Cancer, Politics and Regulation

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