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Be careful what you wish for, Dr. Dossey, you just might get it

If there’s one thing about the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) movement that I’ve emphasized time and time again, it’s that its adherents have a definite love-hate relationship with science. They hate it because it is the single greatest threat to their beliefs system and the pseudoscience that underlies it. At the same time, they crave the legitimacy that science confers. They crave it not because they have any great love for science. Quite the contrary. It is simply that they recognize that science actually delivers the goods. Of course, they believe that they deliver the goods too, but they come to this belief not through science but rather through all the cognitive shortcomings and biases to which humans are prone, such as confusing correlation with causation, confirmation bias, not recognizing regression to the mean, and being fooled by the placebo effect. Whether it’s through a misunderstanding of science or less innocent reasons, they go to great lengths to torture it into superficially appearing to support their claims through a combination of cherry-picking of studies that seem to support them and misrepresenting ones that don’t, discussions of which abound right here in this very blog.

The other thing I’ve emphasized about the CAM movement is that, even more than scientific credibility, they crave legitimacy. To them, however, science is but one pathway to legitimacy, because, unlike practitioners of science-based medicine, they are more than willing to bypass science to obtain the legitimacy–or at least the appearance of the legitimacy–they so crave. If it means doing an end run around science by trying to hijack the Obama health insurance reform bill that is currently being negotiated to resolve the differences between the Senate and House versions, so be it. Indeed, earlier this year, I described how Senator Tom Harkin has tried to promote CAM through the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and trying to insert provisions into the bill that would mandate that government-subsidized insurance exchanges pay for CAM. Meanwhile, prominent CAM advocates have been carpet-bombing the media with dubious arguments in support of CAM, as in when Deepak Chopra, Rustum Roy, Dean Ornish, and Andrew Weil teamed up in different combinations to promote the idea that CAM is all about “prevention” and that science-based medicine, in all its reductionistic evil, is nothing more than pushing pills.

They’re at it again.

Posted in: Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation

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The anti-vaccine movement strikes back against Dr. Paul Offit

In my five years in the blogosphere, two years blogging for SBM, and over a decade in Internet discussion forums about medicine and “alternative” medicine, I’ve learned a few things. One thing that I’ve learned is that one of the biggest differences between those whose world view is based on science and who therefore promote science-based medicine and those promoting pseudoscience, quackery, and anti-science is that science inculcates in its adherents a culture of free, open, and vigorous debate. Indeed, to outsiders, this debate can seem (and sometimes is) vicious. In other words, if you’re going to be a scientist, you need to have a thick skin because you will have to defend your hypotheses and conclusions, sometimes against some very hostile other scientists. That same attitude of a Darwinian struggle between scientific ideas, with only those best supported by evidence and with the most explanatory power surviving, is a world view that those not steeped in science have a hard time understanding.

Among those who don’t understand science, few have a harder time with the rough-and-tumble debate over evidence and science that routinely goes on among scientists than those advocating pseudoscience. Indeed, in marked contrast to scientists, they tend to cultivate cultures of the echo chamber. Examples abound and include discussion forums devoted to “alternative” medicine like CureZone, where never is heard a discouraging word — because anyone expressing too much skepticism about the prevailing view on such forums invariably finds himself first shunned by other members of the discussion forums and then, if he persists, booted from the forum by the moderators. In marked contrast, on skeptical forums, most of the time almost anything goes. True, the occasional supporter of woo who finds his way onto a skeptical forum will face a lot of criticism, some of it brutal. However, rarely will such a person be banned, unless he commits offenses unrelated to his questioning of scientific dogma, such as insulting or abusive behavior towards other forum participants or trolling. Such people may annoy the heck out of us skeptics sometimes, but on the other hand, they do actually from time to time challenge us to defend our science and prevent us from becoming too complacent. Indeed, that’s what I like about skeptics and being a scientist. Nothing or no one is sacred.

Posted in: Chiropractic, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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The life cycle of translational research

ResearchBlogging.orgI’m a translational researcher. To those of you who aren’t familiar with what that means, it means (I hope) that I study potential therapies in the lab and try to translate them into actual therapies that will cure patients of breast cancer — or, at the very least, improve their odds of survival or prolong survival when cure is not possible. Translational research is extremely important; indeed, it is the life blood of science-based medicine, with basic science producing the discoveries and clinical research the applications of these discoveries. When it works, it’s the way that science leads medicine to advance. However, sometimes I think that it’s a bit oversold. For one thing, it’s not easy, and it’s not always obvious what basic science findings can be translated into useful therapies, be it for cancer (my specialty) or any other disease. For another thing, it takes a long time. The problem is that the hype about how much we as a nation invest in translational research all too often leads to a not unreasonable expectation that there will be a rapid return on that investment. Such an expectation is often not realized, at least not as fast and frequently as we would like, and the reason has little to do with the quality of the science being funded. It has arguably more to do with how long it takes for a basic science observation to follow the long and winding road to producing a viable therapy. But how long is that long and winding road?

A lot longer than many, even many scientists, realize. At least, that’s the case if a paper from about a year ago by John Ioannidis in Science is any indication. The article appeared in the Policy Forum in the September 5 issue and is entitled Life Cycle of Translational Research for Medical Interventions. As you may recall, Dr. Ioannidis made a name for himself a couple of years ago by publishing a pair of articles provocatively entitled Contradicted and Initially Stronger Effects in Highly Cited Clinical Research and Why Most Published Research Findings Are False, which Steve Novella blogged about a couple of years ago.

Dr. Ioannidis lays it out right in the first paragraph:

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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The “pharma shill” gambit

Editor’s note: Since I happen to be on vacation (sort of–in reality I plan on spending most of next week holed up in my Sanctum Sanctorum at home writing a grant that’s due in February) and because readership tends to be down during the week between Christmas and New Years’ Day, I thought I’d resurrect something from well over three years ago and revise it to fit this particular blog. In doing so, I hope to provide you with something amusing to read, as well as something to link to time and time again whenever you want to refer to a particular gambit beloved by promoters of quackery and pseudoscience. I present here….The “Pharma Shill” Gambit! Enjoy!

I’ve mentioned before on this blog at least once that I cut my skeptical teeth, so to speak, on Usenet, that vast untamed and largely unmoderated territory full of tens of thousands of discussion newsgroups which used to be a lot more active before the rise of the World Wide Web and then later blogs. These days, few ISPs even offer much in the way of Usenet access; it’s become pretty much irrelevant since Google archived Usenet in the form of Google Groups. My forays into skepticism started out with combatting Holocaust denial on a newsgroup known as alt.revisionism (as good an excuse as any to remind you that nearly all Holocaust “revisionism” isn’t historical revisionism but is actually denial) and then branched out into more general skepticism, particularly about the claims of creationists and, of course, promoters of “alternative” medicine, the latter of which ultimately led me to being the editor of this wild and woolly thing we call the Science-Based Medicine blog. After I began to participate in the debates in the main newsgroup where alternative medicine is discussed,, it didn’t take me long to encounter a favorite tactic of promoters of alt-med who were not happy with one who insists on evidence-based medicine and who therefore questions claims that are obviously not based in valid science: The “Pharma Shill” Gambit. This is a technique of ad hominem attack in which a defender of “alternative” medicine, offended by your questioning of, for instance, his/her favorite herb, colon or liver flush technique, zapper, or cancer “cure,” tries to “poison the well” by implying or outright stating you must be in the pay of a pharmaceutical company, hired for nefarious purposes.

Since I entered the blogosphere several years ago under another guise, I’ve only occasionally checked back at my old stomping ground, mainly because blogging is so much less constraining than posting to Usenet, where mostly I used to respond to the posts of others, rather than writing about what I wanted to write about. A while back, though, out of curiosity I checked back and found this interesting little tidbit from a poster calling himself PeterB that demonstrated such a perfect example of the “pharma shill” gambit that I thought it might serve as a perfect example of the sort of thing I’ve had to put up with ever since I started speaking out against quackery:

Posted in: Humor, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Radiation from medical imaging and cancer risk

ResearchBlogging.orgScience-based medicine consists of a balancing of risks and benefits for various interventions. This is sometimes a difficult topic for the lay public to understand, and sometimes physicians even forget it. My anecdotal experience suggests that probably surgeons are usually more aware of this basic fact because our interventions generally involve taking sharp objects to people’s bodies and using steel to remove or rearrange parts of people’s anatomy for (hopefully) therapeutic effect. Ditto oncologists, who prescribe highly toxic substances to treat cancer, the idea being that these substances are more toxic to the cancer than they are to the patient. Often they are only marginally more toxic to the cancer than to the patient. However, if there’s one area where even physicians tend to forget that there is potential risk involved, it’s the area of diagnostic tests, in particular radiological diagnostic tests, such as X-rays, fluoroscopy, computed tomography (CT) scans, and the variety of ever more powerful diagnostic studies that have proliferated over since CT scans first entered medical practice in the 1970s. Since then, the crude images that the first CT scans produced have evolved, thanks to technology and ever greater computing power, to breathtaking three dimensional-views of the internal organs. Indeed, just since I finished medical school back in the late 1980s, I’m continually amazed at what these new imaging modalities can accomplish.

The downside of these imaging modalities is that most of them require the use of X-rays to produce their images. True, over the last 15 years or so MRI, which uses very strong magnetic fields and radiofrequency radiation rather than ionizing radiation to produce its images, has become increasingly prevalent. MRI is great because it produces more contrast between different kinds of soft tissue than CT scans do. However, CT tends to be superior for examining calcified organs, such as bone. (The breast surgeon in me notes that breast MRI is pretty much useless for detecting microcalcifications, an important possible indicator for cancer.) Also, MRI scans require a prolonged period of laying still in a very tight tube, which is a problem for patients with any degree of claustrophobia, although “open” MRIs are becoming increasingly available. More importantly for the quality of images, because they require a patient to lie more still than a CT, MRIs tend to be prone to more motion artifacts, which is perhaps why CT is more frequently used to image the abdomen other than large solid organs such as the liver. The point is that, although MRI is becoming more prevalent, CT scans aren’t going away any time soon. They have different strengths and weaknesses as imaging modalities and are therefore best suited for different, albeit overlapping, sets of indications.

Posted in: Cancer, Public Health

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Another wrinkle to the USPSTF mammogram guidelines kerfuffle: What about African-American women?

A while back I wrote about rethinking how we screen for breast cancer using mammography. Basically, the USPSTF, an independent panel of physicians and health experts that makes nonbinding recommendations for the government on various health issues, reevaluated the evidence for routine screening mammography and concluded that for women at normal risk for breast cancer, mammography before age 50 should not be recommended routinely and should be ordered on an individualized basis, and that routine formalized breast self-examination (BSE) should also not be routinely recommended. In addition, for women over 50, it was recommended that they undergo mammography every other year, rather than every year. These recommendations were based on a review of the literature, including newer studies.

To say that these new recommendations caused a firestorm in the breast cancer world is an understatement. The USPSTF was accused of misogyny; opponents of health care reform leapt on them as evidence that President Obama really is preparing “death panels”; and HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius couldn’t run away from the guidelines fast enough. Meanwhile, a society I belong to (the American Society of Breast Surgeons) issued a press release accusing the USPSTF of sending us back to the “pre-mammography” days when, presumably women only found breast cancer after it had grown to huge size (just like Europe and Canada, I guess, given that the recommendations for screening there closely mirrors those recommended by the USPSTF). Meanwhile, in the most blatant example of protecting its turf I’ve seen in a very long time, the American College of Radiology went full mental jacket with a press release that was as biased as it was insulting. Meanwhile some physicians even likened the recommendations to going back to being like Africa, Southeast Asia and China as far as breast screening goes in that he actually speculated that he’d now become very busy treating advanced, neglected breast cancers. Unfortunately, as Val pointed out, the communication of the USPSTF guidelines to the public was almost a perfect case study in how not to do it. Even though the science was in general sound and the USPSTF recommendations were in essence close to identical to what other industrialized nations do, they were communicated in just such a way as to produce maximum misunderstanding and misuse for political purposes.

Despite all the hysterical and in some cases disingenuous attacks on the new guidelines, there is one criticism that actually resonates with me because I work at a cancer center in a very urban environment with a large population of African-American women. Last week I heard on NPR this story:

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Public Health

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Cell phones and cancer again, or: Oh, no! My cell phone’s going to give me cancer! (revisited)

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s been about a year and a half since I’ve written about this topic; so I thought I’d better update the disclaimer that I wrote at the beginning:

Before I start into the meat of this post, I feel the need to emphasize, as strongly as I can, four things:

  1. I do not receive any funding from the telecommunications industry in general, or wireless phone companies in particular. None at all. In other words, I’m not in the pocket of “big mobile” any more than I am in the pocket of big pharma.
  2. I don’t own any stock in telecommunications companies, other than as parts of mutual funds in which my retirement funds are invested that purchase shares in many, many different companies, some of which may or may not be telecommunications companies.
  3. None of my friends or family work for cell phone companies.
  4. I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I really don’t.

There. That’s better. Hopefully that will, as it did last time, serve as a shield against the “shill” argument, which is among the frequent accusations I hear whenever I venture into this particular topic area. So, as I did back in 2008, I just thought I’d clear that up right away in order (hopefully) to preempt any similar comments after this post. Unfortunately, as I have known for a long time, I’m sure someone will probably show his or her lack of reading comprehension and post one of those very criticisms of me. It’s almost inevitable, either here or elsewhere. Posting such disclaimers never seems to work against the “pharma shill” gambit when I write about vaccines or dubious cancer cures. Even so, even after nearly ten years involved in skepticism and promoting science-based medicine, hope still springs eternal.

There are two reasons that I think the issue of mobile phones and cancer needs an update on our blog: First, it has been a year and a half since I last wrote about it. At that time I castigated Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, who at that time was director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute for what I viewed as fear mongering over cell phones and cancer based on at best flimsy evidence. Second, there have been two fairly high profile studies looking at whether there is a link between mobile phone use and cancer. One of these our fearless leader Steve Novella has already discussed, but there was another one that he didn’t see because it didn’t get quite as much publicity, possibly because the corresponding author is based in Korea. I will take this opportunity to discuss them both.

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Public Health

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Yet another nail in the coffin of the myth that the MMR vaccine causes autism

Arguably, the genesis of the most recent iteration of the anti-vaccine movement dates back to 1998, when a remarkably incompetent researcher named Andrew Wakefield published a trial lawyer-funded “study” in the Lancet that purported to find a link between “autistic enterocolitis” and measles vaccination with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) trivalent vaccine. In the wake of that publication was born a scare over the MMR that persists to this day, 11 years later. Although peer reviewers forced the actual contents of the paper to be more circumspect, in the press Wakefield promoted the idea that the MMR vaccine either predisposes, causes, or triggers autistic regressions. Even though over the next several years, investigations by investigative journalist Brian Deer revealed that not only was Wakefield’s research funded by trial lawyers looking to sue vaccine manufacturers for “vaccine injury” when he did his research (for which he is now being charged by the U.K.’s General Medical Council with scientific misconduct), but during the Autism Omnibus trial testimony by a world-renowed expert in PCR technology showed that he was incompetent. Even worse for Wakefield, in February 2009 Brian Deer published a news expose based on strong evidence that Wakefield may very well have falsified data for his Lancet paper.

None of this mattered. Andrew Wakefield still enjoys a cult of personality among the anti-vaccine crowd that no revelation seems able to dislodge, even the revelation that at the time he was both in the pay of trial lawyers and working on his study, Andrew Wakefield was also applying for a patent for a rival measles vaccine. Indeed, the anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism bestowed upon him last year its “Galileo Award” as the “persecuted” scientist supposedly fighting for truth, justice, and anti-vaccinationism against the pharma-funded or brainwashed minions of the “Church of the Immaculate Vaccination.” In the meantime, MMR uptake rates in the U.K. have plummeted over the last decade, far below the level needed for herd immunity, to the point where, last year the Health Protection Agency declared measles to be once again endemic in the U.K., 14 years after the local transmission of measles had been halted.

Since Wakefield’s study was released, a number of studies have shown that there is no epidemiologically detectable link between vaccination with MMR and autism, including one by a researcher who once appeared to be a believer in the idea that vaccines are somehow linked with autism, Mady Hornig. Hornig actually tried very hard to replicate Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet study, only this time with more children, and she found no link between MMR and autism using methodology similar to Wakefield’s. None of these studies has had any effect on the anti-vaccine movement, except to motivate them to circle the wagons even more, as J.B. Handley of Generation Rescue did when he launched a website called Fourteen Studies, whose purposes are to launch fallacious and pseudoscientific attacks on studies failing to find a link between vaccines and autism (often involving accusations of being a “pharma shill”), to promote the lousy science that gives the appearance of supporting the hypothesis that there is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and then slime anyone who points out how deceptive their attacks were.

Now, yet another study has been released studying whether there is a link between MMR vaccination and autism. Yet another study has failed to find a link between MMR vaccination and autism. Yet another study is all set to be attacked by Generation Rescue and the anti-vaccine movement. The sad and sordid history of reactions of the anti-vaccine movement to studies that do not support its belief in the unsinkable rubber duck of a myth that vaccines cause autism. This study was published online in The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal by a group from Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, Jagiellonian University, Collegium Medicum, Krakow, Poland (a Polish group, my people!) and entitled Lack of Association Between Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccination and Autism in Children: A Case-Control Study. It’s yet another nail in the coffin of the myth that the MMR causes or contributes to autism. Indeed, this study not only shows that MMR vaccination is not associated with autism but that it may even be protective against autism. True, for reasons I will discuss shortly, I doubt that that latter interpretation is true, but there’s no doubt that this study is powerful evidence against the view that there is an association between MMR and autism. Unfortunately, I fear that all the nails in my local Home Depot would not be enough to keep the zombie of this pseudoscience from rising from its grave yet again.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Vaccines

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The Institute for Science in Medicine enters the health care reform fray

I’ve been writing about the attempts of proponents of various pseudoscience, quackery, and faith-based religious “healing” modalities to slip provisions friendly to their interests into the health care reform bill that will be debated in the Senate beginning today. If you want to know what’s at stake, check out the first press release of a newly formed institute designed to promote science-based medicine in academia and public policy, the Institute for Science in Medicine.

It’s an embryonic institute, only recently formed by 42 physicians and scientists, several of whose names will be quite familiar to regular readers of SBM, but it’s jumping right into the fray. This is what the ISM is:

The ISM is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to promoting high standards of science in all areas of medicine and public health. We are a watchdog group of medical professionals who believe the best science available should be used to determine health policy and establish a standard of care that protects and promotes the public health. We oppose legislation that seeks to erode the science-based standard of care and expose the public to potentially fraudulent, worthless, or harmful medical practices or products.

Given how when faced with science going against them purveyors of unscientific medicine and medical beliefs try to win in politics where they can’t win in science (as my earlier post today describes for naturopaths in Ontario and the anti-vaccine movement in Oregon), just as we do on SBM, those of us who have helped to form the ISM have our work cut out for us.

Steve Novella has more.

Posted in: Announcements, Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Naturopaths and the anti-vaccine movement: Hijacking the law in service of pseudoscience

Time and time again, we’ve seen it. When pseudoscientists and quacks can’t persuade the scientific and medical community of the validity of their claims, they go to the law to try to gain the legitimacy that their claims can’t garner through proving themselves by the scientific method. True, purveyors of pseudoscience and unscientifically-derived medical practices do crave the respectability of science. That’s why they try so hard to take on the trappings of science. The problem is that they just can’t do it right, try as they might, or when they do it right their methods are shown to be no more effective than a placebo, aside from the occasional seeming “positive” results that would be expected based on random chance alone. However, failing to achieve the respectability that the mantle of science provides, practitioners and advocates of pseudoscience frequently try to codify their woo into the law.

The reason that they would do this is not too hard to discern. Few legislators and politicians are scientists, and even fewer are scientifically inclined. Back when I still lived in New Jersey, I may have been lucky enough to have had a Congressional Representative who really was a rocket scientist (well, a physicist, actually), but now that I live in Michigan I’ve gone from having a scientifically inclined Congressional representative to having one of the dimmest bulbs in Congress representing me. What that means is that it’s far easier to persuade politicians that this woo or that woo deserves to be permitted or even licensed. That’s how we now have many states licensing acupuncturists, naturopaths, and even “homeopathic physicians,” as Arizona does. The pressure for this sort of acceptance of unscientific medical modalities is building, as well, as Kimball Atwood has documented. Another example is the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which was passed in 1994 and in essence ties the FDA’s hands when it comes to regulating most supplements. Indeed, the very existence of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is a testament to the success of this approach, as a powerful Senator (Tom Harkin, D-IA) almost single-handedly foisted this scientific atrocity on the NIH against the desires of scientists. The results have included a $30 million scientific boondoggle of a trial to test chelation therapy and a profoundly unethical trial of Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez’s “protocol” for pancreatic cancer patients that a recent clinical trial has shown to be worse than useless. The most recent example of this trend is the way that CAM supporters have tried to hijack President Obama’s health insurance reform initiative to insert coverage for everything from any licensed “alternative medicine” practitioner to Christian Science prayer healing.

Recently, two new fronts have been opened up in this battle. One is disturbingly close to me, as it involves the Canadian province of Ontario whose north shore on the Detroit River is less than two and a half miles from my office, the other in Oregon, which, although it’s happening nearly 2,000 miles away from where I live and practice, could portend a new and disturbing tactic of the anti-vaccine movement to do what various other purveyors of pseudoscience have done before and try to win in state legislatures where they can’t win in science or the courts. Of course, in a democratic republic, it is the right of everyone, even supporters of quackery, to try to petition his or her legislators, but it is equally the responsibility of those of us supporting science-based medicine to try to educate legislators why allowing them to alter the law to protect their pseudoscience has the potential to result in great harm.

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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