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Certainty versus knowledge in medicine

I don’t want knowledge. I want certainty!

— David Bowie, from Law (Earthlings on Fire)

If there’s a trait among humans that seems universal, it appears to be an unquenchable thirst for certainty. It is likely to be a major force that drives people into the arms of religion, even radical religions that have clearly irrational views, such as the idea that flying planes into large buildings and killing thousands of people is a one-way ticket to heaven. However, this craving for certainty isn’t expressed only by religiosity. As anyone who accepts science as the basis of medical therapy knows, there’s a lot of the same psychology going on in medicine as well. This should come as no surprise to those committed to science-based medicine because there is a profound conflict between our human desire for certainty and the uncertainty that is always inherent in so much of our medical knowledge. The reason is that the conclusions of science are always provisional, and those of science-based medicine arguably even more so than many other branches of science.

In fact, one of the hardest things for many people to accept about science-based medicine is that the conclusions of science are always subject to change based on new evidence, sometimes so much so that even those of us “in the biz” can become a bit disconcerted at the rate at which knowledge we had thought to be secure changes. For example, think of how duodenal peptic ulcer disease was treated 25 years ago and then think about how it is treated now. Between 1984 and 1994, a revolution occurred on the basis of the discovery of H. pylori as the cause of most of the gastric and peptic ulcer disease we see. Where in 1985 we treated PUD with H2-blockers and other drugs designed to block gastric acid secretion, now antibiotics represent the mainstay of treatment and are curative at a much higher success rate than any treatment other than surgery and without the complications of surgery. I’m sure any other physician here could come up with multiple other examples. In my own field of breast cancer surgery, I look back at how we treated breast cancer 22 years ago, when I first started residency, and how we treat it now, and I marvel at the changes. If such changes can be disconcerting even to physicians dedicated to science-based medicine, imagine how much more disconcerting they are to lay people, particularly when they hear news reports of one study that produces one result, followed just months later by a report of a different study that gives a completely different result.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine

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Another overhyped acupuncture study misinterpreted

acupinhead

Perhaps the most heavily studied of “alternative medicine” modalities is acupuncture. Although it’s hard to be sure as to the reason, I tend to speculate that part of the appeal to trying to do research in this area is because acupuncture is among the most popular of actual “alt-med” modalities, as opposed to science-based medical modalities co-opted by believers in alt-med and rebranded as “alternative” (diet and exercise, for instance, to which is all too often added the consumption of huge quantities of unproven nutritional supplments) or activities that make people feel better, whether they’re healthy or ill (massage, for instance). In contrast, acupuncture involves actually sticking needles into the skin. Never mind that the rationale for acupuncture, namely “redirecting” the flow of the “life energy” known as qi when it is blocked by sticking needles in “meridians” like some electrodes in some imaginary qi battery, is pure bunkum, as we’ve pointed out here at SBM time and time again. Somehow the image of needles sticking out of the skin, apparently painlessly and making some extreme acupuncture practices resemble Pinhead from the Hellraiser movie series, seems “sexy” as far as “alternative” therapies go, particularly since it’s “Eastern” as opposed to that reductionistically evil “Western medicine,” and, as we all know at SBM, “Western” is bad and “Eastern” is good.

So the fascination with acupuncture remains, so much so that an inordinate amount of research dollars are spent on studying it. Unfortunately, that money is largely wasted. As Steve Novella has pointed out, in general in medicine (at least these days), the trajectory of research is usually from bench research to animal models to small scale, less rigorous, pilot studies in humans to large scale, rigorously designed studies using many subjects. True, this order doesn’t always hold. For instance, if physicians make a compelling observation “at the bedside” of response to therapy or how a disease progresses, frequently, after making closer observations to confirm the initial observation, researchers will jump back to animal models and bench top research to try to figure out what’s going on. For such a progression to be useful, though, scientists have to be sure that the phenomenon in human patients under study actually exists.

Unfortunately, in acupuncture, the evidence is still unconvincing that there is any “there” there in that acupuncture effects appear to be no greater than placebo effects. As larger, more well designed studies using real placebo or sham acupuncture techniques, have increasingly shown that acupuncture does not function any better than placebo in human beings (and sometimes even worse), acupuncturists and acupuncture believers have been reversing the usual order of things, doing smaller studies and “pragmatic” (i.e., uncontrolled) clinical trials, where the placebo effect is not controlled for. Never mind that it doesn’t matter where the needles are placed (thus blowing the whole “meridian” idea out of the water) or even if the needles puncture the skin. Toothpicks work just as well as needles. Also never mind that the mythology of acupuncture as having been routinely practiced for over two thousand years (or, sometimes, four thousand years, is largely a creation of Chairman Mao, who elevated what was a marginal practice at the time to a modality that the state supported and promoted (1,2,3,4). Unfortunately, even the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) falls for this mythology.

Every so often, I’m amazed when an acupuncture study ends up in a high impact journal like Nature Neuroscience. Of course, when I read such articles, virtually inevitably I discover that what is being studied is not really “acupuncture” per se, but rather sticking needles into either people or animals. Sometimes, “electroacupuncture” (which is in reality not acupuncture at all, given that there was no source of electricity hundreds of years ago in China when acupuncture was supposedly invented) is misrepresented as acupuncture. Since a bunch of readers, both here and at my other blog, have deluged my mail box with this particular study, I felt obligated to have a look at it, even if Steve Novella has already weighed in with his excellent deconstruction. This particular study is especially annoying, because it’s been hyped to the nth degree, and even some news sources where the reporters should know better have fallen for it.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Science and the Media

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Nine differences between “us and them,” nine straw men burning

I’ll start this post by admitting right up front: I blatantly stole the idea for the title of this post from Mark Crislip’s most excellently infamous post Nine questions, nine answers. Why? Because I really liked that post and felt like it. Also, there seems to be something about the number nine among anti-vaccine zealots: Nine “questions.” Nine circles of hell.

Nine straw men.

I’m referring to an amazing post that appeared on the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism over the weekend by contributing editor Julie Obradovic entitled The Difference Between You and Me. In this post, Julie describes not one difference, but nine differences, that she perceives between herself (and, apparently, by generalization other parents who have become believers in the myth that vaccines cause autism) and people like SBM contributors and (I hope) the vast majority of our readers, who support science-based medicine, understanding that correlation does not necessarily equal causation and that, most importantly, science not only does not support the belief that vaccines cause autism but provides us with copious evidence that there almost certainly no link between the two. Actually, there are more than nine differences, as Ms. Obradovic packs multiple apparently related differences around each of her nine “differences” and then complains that Alison Singer and, apparently by generalization the rest of us who support SBM and oppose the anti-vaccine movement, misrepresent the reasons why she and her merry band of anti-vaccine activists reject the science that has failed spectacularly to validate their deeply held belief that vaccines cause autism and all sorts of other health consequences. Her post ends up being a collection of straw men constructed to Burning Man size, each of which she then applies a flamethrower of burning nonsense to with self-righteous gusto.
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Stand up for science-based medicine against anti-vaccine fear mongering in Chicago today

As I’ve pointed out numerous times this week, anti-vaccine loons, led Generation Rescue and a “health freedom” group, have organized an anti-vaccine rally in Grant Park in Chicago from 3 PM to 5 PM CDT. Andrew Wakefield himself will be the keynote speaker, and there will even be some very bad music promoting the anti-vaccine message. The rally, with its wonderfully Orwellian title, The American Rally for Personal Rights, will be pure anti-vaccine activism in support of pseudoscience on display.

Those supporting science-based medicine plan, led by Skepchick Elyse Anders, to be there to promote science over the conspiracy theories and fear mongering that the anti-vaccine movement uses to frighten parents out of vaccinating their children. I realize it’s short notice. I realize that you very likely will be outnumbered, given the combination of short notice and the fact that the anti-vaccine zealots have been organizing and promoting this rally for weeks, if not months. Nonetheless, you’ll be doing me a particular solid if you can show up there. Details are here. There are also going to be satellite rallies in New Jersey, Washington, and New York. They look as though they’ll be much smaller; so, as P.Z. Myers points out, even if a couple of people can go it could have an effect.

Oh, and if you see J.B. Handley, Jenny McCarthy (I don’t know if she’ll be there or not but thought I’d mention her anyway), Andrew Wakefield, Kim Stagliano, or any other prominent anti-vaccine loon with whom I’ve tussled from time to time here and elsewhere, please tap him or her on the shoulder, smile broadly, and tell ‘em Dr. Gorski says hi.

Particularly J.B. Handley, for at least three reasons1,2,3.

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Autism One: The yearly antivaccine autism “biomed” quackfest begins

In the world of the anti-vaccine underground, there is one time of the year that looms large. Over the last few years, this time has generally come right around the end of May, usually coinciding with the Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial beginning of the summer vacation season here in the U.S. I’m referring, of course, to Autism One, which blights one of my favorite cities in the world, Chicago, every year about this time. True, of late Autism One has been metastasizing, most recently to blight the city of Toronto and the very grounds of the University of Toronto itself. As you may recall, last fall, when Autism One descended upon Toronto, I described it as “a conference of believers in two things: (1) that vaccines cause autism and (2) that ‘biomedical’ and CAM/IM therapies can treat and even reverse autism,” and it’s true, but Autism One is more than that. It’s a combination of a networking meeting for the anti-vaccine set, a revival meeting for the cult of anti-vaccinationism and autism “biomedical” therapy, and a trade show for “biomed” treatments for autism, all dressed up to appear to be a legitimate scientific conference.

Of all the fake scientific conferences out there, Autism One in Chicago, which begins today, far eclipses all the others, including even Barbara Loe Fisher’s National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) conference. Closely aligned with the anti-vaccine propaganda group Generation Rescue and its outlet in the blogosphere Age of Autism (both of which, not surprisingly, have been promoting the conference incessantly), Autism One is the granddaddy of fake academic autism conferences, where anyone who’s anyone in the anti-vaccine “autism biomed” underground goes to see and be seen. It even has a keynote address by anti-vaccine celebrity spokesmodel Jenny McCarthy herself this year, just like the previous two years. This year, however, Autism One has expanded from three or four days to a full week, and it has taken on a note of political activism that was generally lacking in previous conferences. In previous years, Autism One pretty much stayed localized to a hotel near O’Hare, far from the center of the city. This time around it’s still at a hotel near O’Hare, but its organizers plan an anti-vaccine protest rally right smack dab in the middle of Grant Park on Wednesday afternoon. All of this leads me to conclud that this year Autism One’s organizers appear to be cementing the relationship between the autism “biomed” movement, the anti-vaccine movement, and the “health freedom” movement.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Vaccines

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The story of Andrew Wakefield in pictures

I’ve blogged a lot about anti-vaccine hero Andrew Wakefield over the years. The story has become long and convoluted, and to tell it takes a lot of verbiage, even by my standards (or those of Kimball Atwood). However, I’ve found a good resource that tells the tale of Andrew Wakefield and his misdeeds in a highly accessible form:

Wakefieldcartoon

The question at the very end of the story is about as appropriate as it gets. Unfortunately, the answer to the question is: Yes.

Posted in: Vaccines

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“Medical Voices” on vaccines: Brave, brave Sir Robin…

About a week and a half ago, the ever-ascerbic Mark Crislip applied his dry and devastating wit to a particularly silly bit of anti-vaccine propaganda from an anti-vaccine website, Medical Voices Vaccine Information Center (MVVIC). Written by a naturopath named David Mihalovic, the anti-vaccine propaganda in question was entitled 9 Questions That Stump Every Pro-Vaccine Advocate and Their Claims. Mihalovic’s article is an incredibly — shall we say? — target-rich environment full of logical fallacies (including straw men built to Burning Man dimensions at which Mihalovic aimed his flamethrower of burning ignorance and let loose with napalm-grade flaming nonsense), misinformation, and cherry picking. Dr. Crislip entitled his rejoinder, appropriately enough, Nine Questions, Nine Answers, and his methodical, oh-so-sarcastically complete deconstruction of Mihalovic’s deceptive and disingenuous “nine questions” showed that these questions stump no one who actually knows what he is talking about when it comes to vaccines. More than that, these “nine questions” also reveal an ignorance of vaccines so deep that a bathysphere probably couldn’t withstand the pressure at that depth. Truly, after reading Dr. Crislip’s post, I had to bow to the master. I may be capable of some fairly awesome insolence at times, but I’m hard-pressed to keep up with Dr. Crislip when he’s firing on all cylinders.

Being the ever-benevolent editor that I am and, as such, very proud of Mark’s effort, I decided that common courtesy would suggest that it would be a good idea to send a friendly note to the people behind Medical Voices, you know, just to let them know that their article had been greatly appreciated for its entertainment value. Well, maybe the e-mail wasn’t so friendly. I do recall using the words “nonsense,” “pseudoscience,” “misinformation,” and “despicable” somewhere in the mix. Antivaccine pseudoscience tends to bring that out in me, and it wasn’t a blog post, at least not on SBM. Be that as it may, over a week went by with no response, and I thought that we were being ignored. Oh, well, I thought, no big deal and nothing unexpected. Then, Monday morning, I found this e-mail in my in box from someone named Nick Haas:

Hello Dr. Gorski,

Would you like to debate on vaccines live and publicly over the Internet? You just need a computer and a headset. We could have two medical doctors on each side. We’ll figure out a moderator together.

Nick

A “live” debate. What is it with “live debates”? It seems that cranks always want to challenge those who criticize their misinformation and pseudoscience to “live debates.”
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Posted in: Vaccines

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The latest chapter in the seemingly never-ending saga of dichloroacetate as a cancer treatment

The road from an idea to a useful drug is a long one, and in cancer it is often particularly long. One reason is that to be able to tell whether a given treatment is effective against cancer often takes several years at a minimum, in order to determine if patients receiving the new treatment are surviving their disease longer than those who are not. Surrogate endpoints are usually not enough. Tumor shrinkage in response to a drug often does not correlate with prolongation of survival, although the converse (i.e., lack of tumor shrinkage in response to a new drug) does strongly correlate with failure of a treatment to prolong survival. In other words, effects observed on surrogate endpoints are not enough to judge whether a cancer therapy is working or not.

Three years ago, predating the existence of this blog by nearly a year, I became aware of a story that involved many of the issues in bringing a compound from the laboratory to the clinic. The case was unusual in that is is very rare to see the scientific process by which new drugs progress through the stages of cancer research, from concept to testing in cell culture to testing in animals to testing in humans challenged so strongly by patients themselves. The reason that this normally doesn’t occur is that new cancer treatments are almost always the product of either university-conducted research, pharmaceutical company-conducted research, or partnerships between the two. This case was markedly different in that it involved a chemical that was not only easy to synthesize, but cheap and long out of patent. Even more intriguing, it targeted a metabolic abnormality found in many cancer cells, an abnormality first described nearly 80 years before by Otto Warburg in 1928. This latter aspect of the drug gave it every appearance of a “rediscovery” of old wisdom that big pharma had ignored for 80 years, and that only added to its mystique.

The chemical was dichloroacetate (DCA), and three years ago it created a world-wide sensation. Last week, it created a sensation again, as breathless news reports once again overhyped its promise. Since I’ve been following the story since early 2007, I appear to be in as good a position as anyone to tell the story thus far and put the new findings into context. To begin that process, let’s head back to January 2007.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Health Fraud

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Welcoming a new blogger to SBM

It is my pleasure to announce the addition of a new SBM blogger. Impressed by his dedication to applying scientific principles to the profession of pharmacy, we have recruited Scott Gavura, who is currently best known for his work on Science-Based Pharmacy. You can find out a bit more about his background at his new page on SBM, and his first post is scheduled for Thursday, May 13. In the beginning he will be posting approximately once every four weeks.

Please join me in welcoming Scott to the SBM team.

Posted in: Announcements

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The 2008-2009 Report of the President’s Cancer Panel: Mostly good, some bad, and a little ugly

Mark Crislip is always a hard act to follow, particularly when he’s firing on all cylinders, as he was last Friday. Although I can sometimes match him (and, on rare occasions, even surpass him) for amusing snark, this time around I’m going to remain mostly serious because that’s what the subject matter requires. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m a bit of an odd bird in the world of cancer in that I’m both a surgeon and I run a lab. Sadly, there just aren’t very many surgeons doing basic and translational research these days, thanks to declining NIH funding, increasing clinical burden necessitated by declining reimbursements, and the increasing complexity of laboratory-based research. That’s not to say that there aren’t some surgeons out there doing excellent laboratory research, but sometimes I feel as though I’m part of an endangered species, particularly years like this when grants are running out and I need to renew my funding or secure new funding, the consequence of failure being the dissolution of my laboratory. It’s a tough world out there in biomedical research.

As tough as biomedical research is in cancer, to my mind far tougher is research trying to tease out the relationship between environmental exposures and cancer risk. If you want complicated, that’s complicated. For one thing, obtaining epidemiological data is incredibly labor- and cost-intensive, and rarely are the data clear cut. There’s always ambiguity, not to mention numerous confounding factors that conspire to exaggerate on the one hand or hide on the other hand correlations between environmental exposures and cancer. As a result, studies are often conflicting, and making sense of the morass of often contradictory studies can tax even the most skillful scientists and epidemiologists. Communicating the science and epidemiology linking environment and cancer to the public is even harder. What the lay person often sees is that one day a study is in the news telling him that X causes cancer and then a month later another study says that X doesn’t cause cancer. Is it any wonder that people are often confused over what is and is not dangerous? Add to this a distinct inability on the part of most people, even highly educated people, to weigh small risks against one another (an inability that has led to phenomena such as the anti-vaccine movement), and the task of trying to decide what is dangerous, what is not, how policy is formulated based on this science, and how to communicate the science and the policy derived from it to the public is truly Herculean.
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Posted in: Cancer, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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