Author Archive

“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.

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.

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.


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:

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.

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

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Death by “alternative” medicine: Who’s to blame? (Revisited)

(NOTE: There is now an addendum to this post.)

(NOTE #2: The videos of Robert O. Young’s interview with Kim Tinkham have been removed, as I predicted in this post that they would be. Fortunately, I downloaded copies before he managed to do that. Part 6 appears to be still there–for now.)

(NOTE #3: It was announced on the Facebook page Caring for Kim that the subject of this post, Kim Tinkham, passed away on December 7, 2010 in the late afternoon. Although it was not revealed what kind of cancer she died of, Tinkham almost certainly died from metastatic breast cancer. Quackery appears to have claimed another victim.)

I hate stories like this. I really do. I hate them with a burning passion that makes it hard for me to see straight when I first find out about them.

In fact, you might even say that stories like this are a major part of the reason why I do what I do, both here and elsewhere. They’re a major part of the reason why I’ve recently branched out into public speaking, something that used to terrify me beyond belief but that lately I’ve become at least competent at–sometimes even not bad at all. Sadly, the story I’m about to tell is one I’ve told before, most recently at the Lorne Trottier Science Symposium, where I gave a talk on cancer cure “testimonials,” although at the time I gave the talk the story’s outcome, although predictable, was not yet known.

Now it is.

The woman to whom I refer is named Kim Tinkham, who was diagnosed with breast cancer over three and a half years ago. Regular readers may recall that Kim Tinkham achieved fame not long after that when she was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show in an episode about The Secret, an episode I discussed posts entitled The Oprah-fication of Medicine and On the nature of “alternative” medicine cancer cure testimonials. I don’t want to discuss the utter nonsense that is The Secret in any detail here. However, for those unfamiliar with this particular bit of New Age woo, it’s important to point out that The Secret’s “Law of Attraction” takes the germ of a reasonable idea (namely that one’s attitudes and wishes influence whether one gets what one wants in life, something that’s been known for millennia) and goes off the deep end of woo by proclaiming that, in essence, you can get anything you want by wanting it badly enough and thinking positive thoughts. Basically “The Secret” is that you have the power to “attract” good to yourself by thinking happy thoughts (hence “the law of attraction,” which, according to Secret adherents always works). It’s an idea that resonates in so much of “alternative medicine,” such as German New Medicine or Biologie Totale. Of course, the implication of “Secret” thinking is that, if you don’t get what you want, it’s your fault, an idea that also resonates with so much “alternative” medicine, where a frequent excuse for failure is that the patient either didn’t follow the regimen closely enough or didn’t want it badly enough.

Basically, The Secret is what inspired Kim Tinkham to eschew all conventional therapy for her breast cancer and pursue “alternative” therapies, which is what she has done since 2007. Before I discuss her case in more detail, I’m going to cut to the chase, though.

This weekend, I learned that Kim Tinkham’s cancer has recurred and that she is dying. On Saturday, a reader of my other blog sent me an e-mail that informed me:

Posted in: Cancer, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Science and the Media

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Science-based medicine and improving patient safety and quality of care

The last couple of weeks, I feel as though I may have been slumming a bit. After all, comparatively speaking it’s not that difficult to take on claims that homeopathy benefits fibromyalgia or Oprah Winfrey promoting faith healing quackery. Don’t get me wrong. Taking on such topics is important (otherwise I wouldn’t do it). For one thing, some quackery is so harmful and egregiously anti-science that it needs to be discussed. For another thing, they serve as examples of how even the most obvious quackery can seem plausible. All it takes are the cognitive quirks to which all humans are prone plus a bit of ignorance about what constitutes good scientific evidence to support the efficacy of a given therapy for a given condition.

So let’s move on to something a little more challenging.

Of all the attacks on science-based medicine (SBM), one of the favorite attacks made by its opponents is the claim that SBM is dangerous, that it kills or harms far more people than it helps. An excellent example of this occurred when quackery promoter Joseph Mercola teamed up with fellow quackery promoter Gary Null to write a widely cited article entitled Death by Medicine. Using the famous Institute of Medicine article that estimated deaths from medical errors to be on the order of 50,000 to 100,000 per year, Mercola and Null wove a scary story meant to imply that conventional medicine does far more harm than good. Of course, as our very own Harriet Hall pointed out, they concentrated solely on the harm, which makes it difficult to determine whether the harms truly outweigh the benefits. As Peter Lipson puts it, such arguments are intentionally designed to take our fears and exaggerate them out of all perspective. The idea behind the fallacious arguments used by the likes of Mercola and Null is that, because “conventional” medicine has problems and needs to improve its safety record, the quackery they promote must be a viable alternative to SBM. Yes, that is basically what their arguments boil down to.

The fallacious manner in which advocates for quackery such as Joe Mercola, Mike Adams, and Gary Null use and abuse any shortcoming of SBM that they can find (and, when they can’t find any, make some up) notwithstanding, there is a problem in SBM. Indeed, over the last 10 years or so since the IOM report, reducing the toll due to medical errors has — finally — become an incredibly important issue in medicine. Indeed, I myself have become involved in a state-wide quality improvement initiative in breast cancer as our site’s project director. As a result, I’m being forced to learn more about the nitty-gritty of quality improvement than I had ever thought I would. Combine this with a study published just before the Thanksgiving holiday in the New England Journal of Medicine, and I’m learning that improving care is incredibly difficult. The issues involved are many and tend to involve systems rather than individuals, which is why the solutions often bump up against the individualistic culture to which physicians belong. Moreover, such efforts, like comparative effectiveness research (CER), tend to earn less prestige than scientific research because, like CER, quality improvement initiatives do not in general look for new information and scientific understanding but rather at how we apply what we already know.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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Be thankful: No anti-vaccine propaganda at the movies this weekend

It’s Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S., and, despite the crappy economy, there are still things to be thankful for. For instance, skeptical activism can still be effective. On Sunday Skepchick Elyse put out the call to Skepchick readers to complain to movie theaters that were reportedly going to be airing a public service announcement from the anti-vaccine group SafeMinds? (Actually, “public service announcement” is a misnomer; it should be called a public disservice announcement.) The entire PSA was a truly disgusting and deceptive bit of misinformation. In response, Elyse urged Skepchic readers to flood the relevant theaters with complaints about showing an anti-vaccine advertisement prior to its movies.

Now here’s what we can be thankful for: It worked. At least with AMC Theaters. Last night the anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism, which had been teaming up with SafeMinds to raise money to show these ads during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend admitted as much.

At least for now:

SafeMinds was notified late yesterday afternoon that AMC Theaters has decided to block the SafeMinds Public Service Announcement (PSA) on influenza vaccines with mercury. The PSA alerts parents and pregnant women of the presence of mercury in most influenza vaccines and the ample availability of mercury-free alternatives. The CDC has declined to give a preference for the mercury-free versions, so it is important that the public is aware of its options. AMC’s advertising representative had reviewed and approved the PSA to run in AMC cinemas over the Thanksgiving weekend. A small group of vocal vaccine proponents dismissive of mercury concerns learned of the PSA and bombarded the AMC website, leading to the company’s decision to prevent its release. SafeMinds thanks its supporters who viewed the PSA and contributed to its efforts to educate the public to avoid unnecessary mercury exposure. Mercury in all forms is dangerous, especially to the developing fetus and infants, as referenced on the PSA website SafeMinds will continue its mission to educate the public on this important healthcare topic.


Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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