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Molecular breast imaging (MBI): A promising technology oversold in a TED Talk?

Occasionally, there are topics that our readers want — nay, demand — that I cover. This next topic, it turns out, is one of them. It’s a link to a TED Talk. I’m guessing that most of our readers have either viewed (or at least heard of) TED talks. Typically, they are 20-minute talks, with few or no slides, by various experts and thought leaders. Many of them are quite good, although as the TED phenomenon has grown I’ve noticed that, not unexpectedly, the quality of TED Talks has become much more uneven than it once was. Be that as it may, beginning shortly after it was posted, readers of both this blog and my other super-not-so-secret other blog started peppering me with links to a recent TED Talk by Dr. Deborah Rhodes at the Mayo Clinic entitled A tool that finds 3x more breast tumors, and why it’s not available to you.

At first, I resisted.

After all, I’ve written about the issues of screening mammography, the USPSTF guideline changes (here, too), the early detection of cancer (including lead time and length time bias, as well as the Will Rogers effect), and a variety of other topics related to the early detection of breast cancer, such as overdiagnosis and overtreatment. Moreover, to put it bluntly, there really isn’t anything radically new in Dr. Rhodes’ talk, at least not to anyone who’s been in the field of breast cancer for a while. Certainly, there’s no new conceptual breakthrough in breast imaging and screening described. As I will discuss in more depth later in this post, there’s an interesting application of newer, smaller, and more sensitive detectors with a much better spatial resolution. It’s cool technology applied to an old problem in breast cancer, but something radical, new, or ground-breaking? Not so much. What Dr. Rhodes describes in her talk is the sort of device that, when I read about it in a medical journal, produces a reaction along the lines of, “Nice technology. Not ready for prime time. I hope it works out for them, though. Could be good.” So it was with molecular breast imaging (MBI), which is the topic of Dr. Rhodes’ talk. So I continued to resist for about two or three weeks.

Then our very own Harriet Hall sent me the link. I cannot resist Harriet. When she suggests that perhaps I should blog about a topic, it’s rare that my response would be anything other than, “Yes, ma’am. How soon would you like that post and how many words?” I keed, of course, but only just. The best I could come up with was a wishy-washy “But this isn’t really anything all that new,” which is true enough, but the way Dr. Rhodes tried to sell the audience on the idea of her technology brings up a lot of issues important to our audience. I also thought it was important to put this technology in perspective. So here I go. First, I’ll start by describing what really set my teeth on edge about Dr. Rhodes’ talk. Then I’ll go to the primary literature (namely her brand, spankin’ new article in Radiology describing the technology) and discuss the technique itself.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Medical devices, Science and the Media

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For shame, Dr. Oz, for promoting Joseph Mercola on your show!

I’ve been highly critical of Dr. Mehmet Oz, Vice Chair of the Department of Surgery at Columbia University and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Program (i.e., Columbia’s quackademic medicine) program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Those are his academic titles. More important, in terms of his promotion of pseudoscience, is his role as daytime medical show host. Dr. Oz’s television show, called, appropriately enough, The Dr. Oz Show, is a direct result of his having been featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show on numerous occasions as one of her regular medical experts. Because of his popularity, Dr. Oz became Oprah’s protégé and ultimately scored his very own daytime TV show, which has been quite successful since its debut in September 2009.

So what has led me to conclude that I’ve finally completely had it with Dr. Oz? Or, as Popeye would say, “I’ve had all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!”

The final straw occurred yesterday, but this has been building up for a while. Of course, I’ve known for a long time that Dr. Oz has a weak spot for “alternative medicine.” A decade ago, he was known for bringing reiki masters into the operating room do their mystical magical gestures during cardiac surgery, the better to channel the healing energy of the “universal source” into his patients before they went onto the cardiopulmonary bypass machine. His wife is also a reiki master, which might explain his particular fondness for this form of faith healing. Even so, even though I always knew Dr. Oz was into some woo, most of the times I ever saw him on Oprah’s show and the rare occasion that I’ve seen his show, the worst I could say about him was that he is at best a shruggie and at worst too prone to mixing perfectly valid, science-based information with the “softer” forms of “complementary and alternative” medicine (CAM) modalities, such as acupuncture and reiki. Even so, CAM didn’t seem to be a major part of his show. That seems to have changed in 2010.

As 2010 dawned, I became aware of a show in which Dr. Oz promoted reiki completely uncritically, beginning the year with a show entitled Dr. Oz’s Ultimate Alternative Medicine Secrets. It wasn’t too long before Dr. Oz did it again, delivering a two-fer of “quantum” quackery coupled with just plain quackery, when he invited Deepak Chopra and Joe Mercola on his show. Around the same time, Dr. Oz also revealed in an interview also hadn’t had his children vaccinated against H1N1. In all fairness, he seemed embarrassed to admit this and uncomfortable about the situation (Dr. Oz has never, to my knowledge, expressed anti-vaccine views), but, even so, he did seem to be more sympathetic than the evidence warrants to the concept that vaccines might somehow cause autism. None of these occurrences was good, but, as disturbing as they were, none of them quite crossed a line. Quite.

As 2011 dawns, there is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Oz has now irrevocably crossed his Woo-bicon (link there to make my pun painfully obvious), gone over to the Dark Side, betrayed the cause, gone woo, or whatever you want to call it. He’s done, as far as science-based medicine goes. That’s because yesterday he featured one of the biggest promoters of highly dubious medical remedies on the Internet on his show in one fawning segment after another. I’m referring, of course, to Dr. Joe Mercola, who was the main guest on The Dr. Oz Show yesterday in segments entitled The Alternative Health Controversy (part 1, part 2, part 3), coupled with another segment entitled The Surprising Supplement You Need. Let’s just say that Dr. Oz’s journey to the Dark Side is now complete. He has controlled his fear but released his woo, and it is strong woo indeed.
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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and the Media

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Simply Raw: Making overcooked claims about raw food diets

This week, I plan on taking on something that’s been sitting near the bottom of my “to do list” for several weeks now. Indeed, readers have been sending me links since November or so to what will be the topic of this week’s post, but something somehow has always managed to push it aside each weekend when the time came to sit down and start writing my weekly post for this blog. I was also motivated by noting that, even though we are now entering the fourth year of this blog’s existence (yes, as hard as it is to believe, we started way back in January 2008), no one has done a post specifically about this particular topic, although I have mentioned it in the past, in particular in my discussion of a movie about the Gerson protocol for pancreatic cancer over a year ago.

This time around, I will be discussing a movie as well. Unlike The Beautiful Truth, which was about the Gerson protocol and didn’t feature any big names, this movie, Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days, features at least a couple of big names. These include Morgan Spurlock, who directed and starred in the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, which featured Spurlock eating nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days and documented the effects that diet had on him, and actor and “raw food activist” Woody Harrelson. Both were interviewed for the movie, and a longer interview with Spurlock is featured as part of a promotional film series on the web that goes along with Simply Raw.

Here are two trailers for the movie. First, trailer #1:

Then, trailer #2:

And here is the introduction to the Raw for Life DVD, a companion “A-Z encyclopedia” of “live food” veganism that is being sold as a companion piece to Simply Raw:

As you can see, Simply Raw follows the story of six people, four of whom have type II diabetes, one of whom has type I diabetes, and one of whom is presented as having initially been diagnosed with type II diabetes but then diagnosed with type I diabetes. These six show up at The Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center in Arizona to try to reverse their diabetes “naturally” with a “raw food” diet, having answered an advertisement for subjects in a “raw food challenge” to reverse diabetes. The center is described thusly on its website:
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Homeopathy, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Mothering magazine: Peddling dangerous health misinformation to new mothers

Last week, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published an expose by investigative journalist Brian Deer that enumerated in detail the specifics of how a British gastroenterologist turned hero of the anti-vaccine movement had committed scientific fraud by falsifying key aspects of case reports that he used as the basis of his now infamous 1998 Lancet article suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and a syndrome consisting of regressive autism and enterocolitis. Indeed, Deer even went so far as to describe Wakefield’s fraud as “Piltdown medicine,” comparing it explicitly to the infamous “Piltdown man” hoax, and in an accompanying editorial the editors of the BMJ agreed. These revelations were not by any means new. Scientists had suspected that something wasn’t quite right about Wakefield’s work almost as soon as it had been published, and by 2004 Brian Deer had uncovered clear evidence of major undisclosed conflicts of interest on Wakefield’s part. Unfortunately, by that time the proverbial cat was out of the proverbial bag, and Wakefield’s fraudulent research, aided and abetted by his flair for self-promotion in the media and some truly execrable, credulous, and sensationalistic coverage by the British press, had ignited a major scare over the MMR vaccine. MMR uptake rates plummeted below levels necessary for herd immunity, and measles came roaring back with a vengeance in the U.K. By the time the British General Medical Council finally ruled about a year ago that Wakefield had committed research fraud and violated research ethics in the work reported in his 1998 Lancet article and recommended that he be “struck off” (i.e., have his license to practice medicine in the U.K. revoked), the damage had been done.

As important as Wakefield is to the genesis of the modern anti-vaccine movement, however, there is another force that acts far more “where the rubber hits the road,” so to speak. This force comes in the form of publications and online discussion forums that cater to new mothers, offering all manner of advice and support. Some of these are very good, but all too many of them are hotbeds of anti-vaccine pseudoscience, confidently proclaimed by “elder statesman” members of these forums and included in articles published in glossy, attractive magazines. As a rather ironic coincidence, just as news of Andrew Wakefield’s latest humiliation was finding its way out into multiple news outlets last week, the first issue of 2011 of just such a glossy publication hit the shelves. I’m referring to Mothering, whose tagline is “Inspiring Natural Families Since 1976.” In reality, it should read: “Inspiring quackery and anti-vaccine views since 1976.” Of course, in the world of “alt-med,” the two often go hand-in-hand. In any case, one of our readers sent me a link to the latest issue of Mothering. Unfortunately, I can’t supply you with that link, because it’s for subscribers. I will, however, describe and quote articles and passages that demonstrate just what a wretched hive of scum and quackery Mothering is, particularly with respect to vaccines but not limited to vaccines. Taking into account its large and vigorous online forums, Mothering is major force for the promotion of anti-vaccine views and quackery among new mothers.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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“Piltdown medicine” and Andrew Wakefield’s MMR vaccine fraud

Pity poor Andrew Wakefield. Well, not really. I tend to view what’s happening to him yet again as the chickens coming home to roost.

Let’s put it this way. 2010 was a terrible year for him, and 2011 is starting out almost as bad. In February 2010, the General Medical Council in the U.K. recommended that Wakefield be stripped of his license to practice medicine in the U.K. because of scientific misconduct related to his infamous 1998 case series published in The Lancet, even going so far as to refer to him as irresponsible and dishonest, and in May 2010 he was. This case series, thanks to Wakefield’s scientific incompetence and fraud, coupled with his flair for self-promotion and enabled by the sensationalistic credulity of the British press, ignited a scare about the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine in which, afraid that the MMR vaccine causes autism, parents in the U.K. eschewed vaccinating their children in droves. As a result, vaccination rates plummeted far below the level necessary for herd immunity, with the entirely predictable result of massive measles outbreaks in the U.K. Measles, which as of the mid-1990s had been declared under control by British and European health authorities, came roaring back to the point where in 2008 it was declared once again endemic in the British Isles. In a mere decade and a half, several decades of progress in controlling this scourge had been unravelled like a thread hanging off a cheap dress, all thanks to Andrew Wakefield and scandal mongers in the British press.

True, Wakefield had long since moved to Texas, the better to be the founding “scientific director” of a house of autism woo known as Thoughtful House. Thus, the removal of his license to practice had little practical import (or effect on his ability to earn a living), or so it seemed at the time, given that Wakefield did not treat patients and hauled in quite the hefty salary for his promotion of anti-vaccine pseudoscience. Fortunately, karma’s a bitch, and, as a result of the GMC’s action, in short order The Lancet retracted Wakefield’s 1998 paper; Wakefield was pushed out of Thoughtful House; and his latest attempt to “prove” that vaccines cause autism in an animal study was also retracted. Investigative reporter Brian Deer’s investigation finding that Andrew Wakefield had committed scientific fraud in carrying out his Lancet study joined prior findings that Wakefield had been in the pocket of trial lawyers (to the tune of £435 643, plus expenses) seeking to sue the vaccine industry at the time he carried out his “research” and the allegations by renowned PCR expert Stephen Bustin during the Autism Omnibus as to how shoddily Wakefield’s other research was carried out. Finally, the mainstream media started to back away from its previous embrace of Wakefield and his claims. As a result, for a while at least, Wakefield was reduced to lame appearances at sparsely attended anti-vaccine rallies last spring.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Deadly Choices about vaccination

appThe year 2011 is starting out rather promisingly, at least from the point of view of science-based medicine. Its beginning coincides with the release of two — count ‘em, two! — books taking a skeptical, science-based look at vaccines and, in particular, the anti-vaccine movement. First off the mark is a new book by a man whom the anti-vaccine movement views as the Dark Lord of Vaccination, sitting up in Barad-dûr (apparently the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), a man utterly reviled by anti-vaccine quacks everywhere, Dr. Paul Offit. He has been subjected to considerable bile and harassment due to his simply standing up for the science behind vaccines. The book is entitled, appropriately enough, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. Also being released is a new book by Seth Mnookin entitled The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear. Mnookin is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and whose work has appeared in numerous publications. Because I got a copy of Deadly Choices before my copy of The Panic Virus arrived, I decided to review Deadly Choices first; after I’ve managed to read The Panic Virus, I’ll write a review of it as well. Both books are arrows shot at the heart of the pseudoscience and fear at the heart of the vaccine manufactroversy, and it might well be useful to compare and contrast the two once I’ve finished The Panic Virus.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at Deadly Choices, an excellent, well-researched book with which I have relatively few disagreements. It is a followup to Dr. Offit’s last book, Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, which I reviewed back when it first came out. In contrast to Autism’s False Prophets, which concentrated primarily on the manufactroversy that claims that vaccines are responsible for the “autism epidemic,” Deadly Choices steps back to take a broader look at the anti-vaccine movement. Regular readers of SBM hardly need to be reminded how pervasive and dangerous the modern-day anti-vaccine movement has become. Indeed, it is a frequently discussed theme of this blog, given that the anti-vaccine movement is such a major force among the forces that deny the efficacy of scientific medicine and seek either to replace it with unscientific or pseudoscientific “alternatives” or to “integrate” pseudoscience into science-based medicine. Indeed, anti-vaccine sentiment infuses large swaths of what we refer to as “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), be it chiropractic, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, or a wide variety of other modalities and systems.

In examining the modern anti-vaccine movement, Dr. Offit structures his book into three major sections. First, beginning in a chapter entitled The Birth of Fear, Dr. Offit begins with a description of the birth of the modern anti-vaccine movement, which in the U.S. Dr. Offit traces, in large part, to the broadcast of an irresponsible and anecdote-driven news documentary about the diptheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine in 1982, and in the U.K. to a scare about the DPT triggered by a presentation by Dr. John Wilson to the Royal Society of Medicine about horrific complications thought to be due to the pertussis vaccine in the DPT. Next, Dr. Offit goes back into history to describe the development of the anti-vaccine movement in the 1800s in England and notes parallels with the modern day anti-vaccine movement. Finally, the story shifts back to today, where he describes the situation now, how demands for vaccines turned into fear of vaccines, and what we might do about it.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Vaccines

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Placebo effects without deception? Well, not exactly…

In discussing “alternative” medicine it’s impossible not to discuss, at least briefly, placebo effects. Indeed, one of the most common complaints we at SBM voice about clinical trials of alternative medicine is the lack of adequate controls — meaning adequate controls for placebo and nonspecific effects. Just type “acupuncture” in the search box in the upper left hand corner of the blog masthead, and you’ll pull up a number of discussions of acupuncture clinical trials that SBM bloggers have written over the last three years. If you check some of these posts, you’ll find that in nearly every case we spend considerable time and effort discussing whether the placebo or sham control used was adequate, noting that, the better the sham controls, the less likely acupuncture studies are to have a positive result.

Some of the less clueless advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) seem to realize that much of what they do relies on placebo effects. As a result, they tend to argue that what they do is useful and good because it’s “harnessing the placebo effect” for therapeutic purpose. One problem that advocates of SBM (like those of us at SBM who have taken an interest in this topic) tend to have with this argument is that it has always been assumed that a good placebo requires on some level at least some deception of the patient by either saying or implying that he is receiving an active treatment or medicine of some kind. This, we have argued, is a major ethical problem in using placebos in patients, and advocates of placebo medicine appear to agree, because they frequently argue that placebo effects can be harnessed without deception. Indeed, just last week there was an example of this argument plastered all over multiple news outlets and blogs in the form of stories and posts with headlines and titles like:

Except for one, every one of these articles or blog posts discussing a new study in PLoS ONE that purports to have found that placebo effects can be elicited in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) without deception buys completely into that very thesis. For example, here is an example, taken from the Reuters story about this study:

Placebos can help patients feel better, even if they are fully aware they are taking a sugar pill, researchers reported on Wednesday on an unusual experiment aimed to better understand the “placebo effect.”

Nearly 60 percent of patients with irritable bowel syndrome reported they felt better after knowingly taking placebos twice a day, compared to 35 percent of patients who did not get any new treatment, they report in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.

“Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had ‘placebo’ printed on the bottle,” Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who led the study, said in a statement.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals, Science and the Media

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Freeways, autism, and correlation versus causation

I have a love-hate relationship with epidemiology.

On the one hand, I love how epidemiology can look for correlations in huge sample sizes, sample sizes far larger than any that we could ever have access to in clinical trials, randomized or other. I love the ability of epidemiology to generate hypotheses that can be tested in the laboratory and then later in clinical trials. Also, let’s not forget that epidemiology is sometimes the only tool available to us that can answer some questions. Such questions generally involve hypotheses that can’t be tested in a randomized clinical trial because of either ethical concerns or others. A good example of this is the question of whether vaccines cause autism. For obvious ethical reasons, it’s not permissible to perform a randomized clinical trial in which one group of children is vaccinated and one is not, and then outcomes with respect to neurodevelopmental outcomes, such as autism and autism spectrum disorders, are tracked in the two groups. The ethical concern with such a study, of course, is the potential harm that would be likely to come to the unvaccinated control group, children who would be left unprotected against common and postentially deadly communicable diaseases.

On the other hand, epidemiology is one of the messiest of sciences, and epidemiological studies are among the most difficult in all of science to perform truly rigorously. The number of factors that can confound are truly amazing, and as a result, it’s very, very easy for an epidemiological study to detect apparent correlations that are either spurious or appear much stronger than the “true” correlation. There can be confounding factors beneath confounding factors wrapped in more confounding factors, the relationships among which are not always apparent. Not infrequently, a condition can appear to be correlated with, for instance, an environmental factor, but in reality that environmental factor and the condition both correlate with a third, unknown confounder. Worse, epidemiologists know that correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but the general public, for the most part, does not, which is why, when anti-vaccine activists, for instance, point out to a rising autism prevalence and then point out that autism prevalence started rising around the same time the vaccine schedule was expanded, to the average layperson the argument sounds compelling. As a result, the design of an epidemiological study is paramount in order to account for or minimize such factors. That’s why I always said I can’t be an epidemiologist. Even though I was very good at math in college, the statistics still made my brain hurt, and I don’t have the patience for the messiness of trying to account for all the possible confounding factors.

However, for all their strengths and flaws, epidemiological studies are an integral part of science-based medicine. They are used to identify predisposing factors to diseases and conditions, environmental contributors to disease, and adverse reactions to drugs, among many other useful pieces of data. That’s why, from time to time, I like to examine epidemiological studies, particularly if they’re epidemiological studies that are getting a lot of press.

The use and abuse of autism epidemiology studies

For instance, studies like this one described in a story in the Los Angeles Times on Friday entitled Proximity to freeways increases autism risk, study finds: More research is needed, but the report suggests air pollution could be a factor:
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Posted in: Epidemiology, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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For Good Reason…

This one crept up on me by surprise. You see, I recorded an interview with D.J. Grothe, President of the James Randi Educational Foundation and host of the podcast For Good Reason back in November. I wasn’t sure when it would appear. Well, it turns out that it popped up on my iTunes podcast feeds sometime over the last few days. (It’s been really busy at work, and I haven’t really been paying attention to podcasts–at least, not until yesterday.)

So, here it is. I haven’t listened to it all yet, but hopefully I explained myself well enough and did credit to my fellow SBM bloggers. DJ is a good interviewer, which means he presses his subjects a bit and sometimes gets them out of their comfort zone.

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The “decline effect”: Is it a real decline or just science correcting itself?

‘Tis the season, it would seem, for questioning the scientific method.

You might recall that back in October, I was a bit miffed by an article in The Atlantic entitled Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science and expressed my annoyance in one of my typical logorrheic posts. Then, a mere couple of weeks later, Steve Simon wrote a rather scathing criticism of the very concept of science-based medicine, which I ended up answering, again in my usual inimitable logorrheic fashion. Unfortunately, these things often come in threes. Well, maybe not always threes. It’s not as though this “rule” is anything like the count for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, where “Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.” Except that five isn’t always right out when it comes to these sorts of criticisms of science and/or science-based medicine.

But enough of my pathetic attempt to channel Mark Crislip. The third count in articles expressing skepticism of the scientific method and science-based medicine comes, for purposes of my discussion, in the form of an article in The New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer entitled The Truth Wears Off: Is There Something Wrong With the Scientific Method? Unfortunately, the full article is restricted only to subscribers. Fortunately, a reader sent me a PDF of the article; otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered to discuss it. Also, Lehrer himself has elaborated a bit on questions asked of him since the article’s publication and published fairly sizable excerpts from his article here and here. In any case, I’ll try to quote as much of the article as I think I can get away with without violating fair use, and those of you who don’t have a subscription to The New Yorker might just have to trust my characterization of the rest. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s what I have to work with.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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