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Christine Maggiore and Eliza Jane Scovill: Living and dying with HIV/AIDS denialism

Christine Maggiore

On Science-Based Medicine, we strive to apply the light of science and reason on all manner of unscientific belief systems about medicine. For the most part, but by no means exclusively, we have concentrated on so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) because there is an active movement to infiltrate faith-based, rather than science-based, modalities into “conventional” medicine. Indeed, such efforts are well-financed, both by public and private organizations, and are alarmingly successful at insinuating postmodernist and pseudoscientific beliefs into academia to form an unholy new monster that has been termed by some as “quackademic medicine.”

However, one pseudoscientific belief system about medicine that we at SBM have perhaps not dealt with as much as we should is the belief that, contrary to the overwhelming scientific consensus built up over 25 years, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) does not cause Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). True, working with Tara Smith, our fearless leader Steve Novella has published an excellent primer on the phenomenon, but not on this blog. This belief system, which is commonly called HIV/AIDS denial or HIV/AIDS denialism, is championed by virologist Peter Duesberg, along with a panoply of groups, such as Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives and Rethinking AIDS; blogs, such as Science Guardian, HIV/AIDS Skepticism, and AIDS Is Over; podcasts, such as How Positive Are You?; books, such as What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong? by Christine Maggiore; and movies, such as The Other Side of AIDS (which resembles in many ways the anti-evolution movie Expelled! and the pro-quackery movie The Beautiful Truth). The influence of HIV/AIDS denialism is horrific, too, particularly in Africa, where advocates of such nonsense, such as Matthias Rath, have advocated quackery over antiretroviral therapy and had the ear of South African President Thabo Mbeki, who lost power in late 2007.
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The fallacy of “balance” and “fairness” about unscientific health claims in the media: A case study

For those of us who have dedicated ourselves to promoting science-based medicine, one of the most frustrating impediments to our message is the media. Time and time again, I’ve complained about how the media takes unscientific health claims, particularly when it comes to vaccines, and gives a credulous hearing to them. Sometimes, it’s a filmmaker with a distinct ideological axe to grind who is not making even the pretense of trying to be objective. Sometimes it’s a reporter with a clear bias favoring the antivaccine movement parroting the most idiotic of unscientific lies. Other times, it’s celebrities who think their “education” from Google University trumps science, clinical trials, and epidemiology, often given aid and comfort by sympathetic physicians. Add to that others inclined to support pseudoscience against science-based medicine, such as Don Imus, Larry King, and others, and is it any wonder that the media seems like one huge cesspit of woo?

However, more often, it’s none of these things. As much as they infuriate me, I believe that most reporters in the media do really want to get it right. However, they are hobbled by three things. First, many, if not most, of them have little training in science or the scientific method and are not particularly valued by their employers. For example, witness how CNN shut down their science division. Second, the only medical or science stories that seem to be valued are one of three types. The first type is the new breakthrough, the cool new discovery that might result in a new treatment or cure. Of course, this type doesn’t distinguish between science-based and non-science-based “breakthroughs.” They are both treated equally, which is why “alternative medicine” stories are so popular. The second type is the human interest story, which is inherently interesting to readers, listeners, or viewers because, well, it’s full of human interest. This sort of story involves the child fighting against long odds to get a needed transplant, for example, especially if the insurance company is refusing to pay for it. The third type, unfortunately, often coopts the second type and, to a lesser extent, the first type. I’m referring to the “medical controversy” story. Unfortunately, the “controversy” is usually more of a manufactroversy. In other words, it’s a fake controversy. No scientific controversy exists, but ideologues desperately try to make it appear as though a real scientific controversy exists. Non-medical examples include creationism versus evolution and the “9/11 Truth” movement versus history. Medical examples include the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” movement versus science-based medicine and, of course, the anti-vaccine movement.

But the thing that most prevents the scientifically accurate evaluation by the media of unscientific health claims has to be the “tell both sides” culture of “balance” demanded by journalists. Telling both sides is, of course, very important when one side is not obviously correct compared to the other. Examples of such a situation include virtually any political controversy, where there almost always are two (and usually more) sides to an issue. In contrast, in science and medicine, there are not always two sides to an issue. (Again, think of creationism versus evolution.) In science and medicine, there is often a side supported so overwhelmingly by evidence, experimentation, and observation that the “other side” does not warrant being told, as it has already been considered and rejected by science. An excellent example of this is homeopathy. Another excellent example of this is the antivaccine movement, and, unfortunately, a prime example of “telling both sides” of the “vaccine debate” reared its ugly head a couple of weeks ago. Worse, it reared its ugly head on a show that ostensibly claims to be medically accurate, so much so that it features four doctors as its hosts.

I’m referring to a TV show called The Doctors. If the episode segment I’m about to discuss, which aired on December 11, is any indication, these are Doctors that anyone seeking scientifically sound information about medicine should run, not walk, away from.
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Battlefield acupuncture revisited: That’s it? That‘s all Col. Niemtzow’s got?

It’s like the zombie that wouldn’t die, isn’t it?

I’m referring to so-called “battlefield acupuncture,” a topic that I wrote about last week for this very blog. With a week separating my usual posts, I normally don’t write about the same topic two times right in a row, but I’m making an exception for this topic. There are three reasons. First, I remain appalled at how one ideologue, Col. (Dr.) Richard Niemtzow, a radiation oncologist and Air Force physician turned number one advocate of acupuncture use in the military, has succeeded in introducing acupuncture into not only military hospitals like Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (which is, by the way, the first stop outside of the Middle East for our wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan), but has even started to train U.S. Army Rangers in the technique. While before I thought the term “battlefield acupuncture” was a misnomer because it wasn’t actually being used on the battlefield, but rather for phantom limb pain and other chronic pain conditions, this latter development shows just how far Col. Niemtzow wishes to go with this “technique.” Second, Col. Niemtzow’s acupuncture technique isn’t even “real” acupuncture. He calls it “auricular acupuncture,” and it involves sticking needles a mere 1 mm into the earlobe. Worse, he justifies this technique through ignorance of anatomy, claiming that “the ear acts as a ‘monitor’ of signals passing from body sensors to the brain” and that “those signals can be intercepted and manipulated to stop pain or for other purposes.” He even made a comment about 18th century pirates wearing a lot of earrings in order to improve their night vision. I kid you not. Third, and finally, Col. Niemtzow has published another one of his “studies” to support the use of acupuncture in chronic pain syndromes among our combat wounded veterans.

Last time around, I referred to an earlier study by Col. Niemtzow published in Military Medicine in 2006. This study was clearly labeled as a “pilot study.” Although it was randomized (good), it was small (tolerable for a pilot study); it was unblinded (bad); and there was no placebo or “sham acupuncture” control group (horrible). There were multiple other serious shortcomings, but those are the main ones. In other words, Col. Niemtzow’s 2006 study was custom-designed to show a “positive” result that could be entirely explained by the placebo effect, and that’s exactly what it did. Indeed, even by that standard, its results were unimpressive. Although the pain scores in the acupuncture group were reported to have decreased by 23% initially, compared to the conventional therapy group, which did not decrease measurably, within 24 hours after treatment there was no difference between the two groups. I’ve referred to this study as “thin gruel” upon which to base the creation of a military acupuncture program, much less expanding that program into combat and training military physicians and medics being sent to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan to do auricular acupuncture. I still say it’s thin gruel,.

So what about this new study by Col. Niemtzow, hot off the presses in the latest issue of Medical Acupuncture?
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“Battlefield acupuncture”?

THE SCENE: Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere where U.S. troops are risking life and limb.

THE TIME: The not-too-distant-future. Maybe even 2009.

Joe is on patrol.

It’s the middle of summer in the desert town. The air hangs heavy, hot, dry and dusty, like a blast furnace firing steel. The heat penetrates Joe’s 80 lb pack in much the same way the heat from boiling water penetrates the shell of an unfortunate lobster. Joe’s heart races. His squad is on edge; their eyes dart furiously to and fro, looking for the deadly threat that might lurk in the shadows. Every shadow is a potential source of death, every alley a refuge from which the enemy can attack and kill him or his buddies, every rooftop a fortress from which the enemy can rain death upon the squad. The area is known to be thick with terrorists and insurgents. Joe pictured them waiting unseen from every nook and cranny for the opportunity to attack. The skin on Joe’s back is all prickly. He distinctly feels as though he has a huge bullseye pointed on his back. He feels a bead of sweat dripping down his forehead and onto his eyelid, all slimy and salty. Joe desperately wants to wipe it away, but that would necessitate removing one of his hands from his weapon. The split second it would take for him to put it back might mean the difference between life and death for him or one of his buddies.

A loud roar fills Joe’s ears, and suddenly he feels as though he has no weight. The scene unfolds in slow motion, just like in the movies. Dazed, Joe hears a tumult as though from a great distance, but can see nothing. Yelling and gunfire all around, he becomes conscious enough to realize that he’s lying flat on his back. He feels searing pain in his legs and a hot liquid oozing around them. It occurs to Joe that it must be his own blood or even perhaps his own urine, but he’s just too dazed to care.

“Medic!” Joe hears someone scream. He feels someone pull his helmet from his head and realizes that the sound of gunfire and yelling is receding. His unit must be driving away the ambushers. Good! He thinks. Give those assholes hell, guys! He opens his eyes, and realizes that his buddy’s got his back, and turns to see another man, a medic, drop to his knees at his side. His uniform is stained a disturbing red. Joe feels the medic wrapping something around his thigh. It’s a tourniquet, and Joe cries out in pain as he feels it constricting around his upper thigh.

“Bleeding’s better!” Joe hears the medic say to his buddy. “I’ll take it from here.” Joe’s buddy runs off to join the rest of his unit, and the medic moves his face close to Joe’s. He feels himself being moved from side to side and then his legs being moved. More pain. Joe cries out.

The medic leans in to talk to Joe, “I think we’ve got the bleeding under control for now. I put a tourniquet on your leg. Let’s get you out of here. The docs’ll patch you up in no time.” Joe is vaguely aware of another corpsmen with a stretcher nearby. The medic leans in again, “Are you in pain, soldier?”

“What do you think? My leg hurts like a sonofabitch! I could really use something for the pain,” Joe hears himself yelling, again as if from a distance. Pain is shooting through his leg, setting every nerve on fire, and the tourniquet is biting into raw muscle through the edge of a wound that comes all the way up to his groin. The flayed edges of his skin shoot fire to his brain, and he can feel his broken bones grinding against each other every time he moves in spite of the splint.

“I’ve got something better that’ll help,” the medic screams over the din.

Better? Joe thinks. I’m in agony here. I need something! Anything!

The medic pulls a small box out of his pack. Joe sees that it’s a small case. He opens it. Its contents look something like this:

acupuncturekit

Joe is puzzled. Where’s the morphine? He wonders. “What are those needles?” Joe asks. “What are you doing? I’ve never seen syringes that look like that before!”

“Acupuncture,” replies the medic. “I’ll take care of you.”

“What are you going to do with them?” Joe replies.

“Stick them into your earlobe. It’ll take the pain away really fast.”

“Are you shittin’ me?” Joe screeches, trying to get up to grab the medic by the front of his uniform. “My leg’s a bloody mess, I’m in agony, and you’re tellin’ me you’re gonna stick little needles in my ear and make it all better? Like that‘s going to do anything! I need real pain medicine! Give me morphine! NOW!
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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Now there’s something you don’t see on TV every day…

I rather like Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Unfortunately, I seldom get to watch, mainly because I usually show up at work sometime between 7:00 and 7:30 AM, and I don’t like watching more than a few minutes of video on my computer.

However, Hugh Laurie, star of House, was interviewed by Conan and revealed himself to be not unlike me in that he’s definitely a booster of reason and science in medicine over irrationality and dubious “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) therapies. In fact, his attitude towards CAM appears to be not at all unlike that of the character he plays on House. Check out the interview. (If you want to watch, the relevant part of the interview begins at about 23:50 into the show.)

For those who might have problems playing Internet video, I’ve found a transcript:
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Humor, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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How not to win friends and influence people

BLOGGER’S NOTE: The incident described in this post is true, although somewhat embellished to protect the names and identities of the innocent, if you know what I mean. This conversation occurred a few years ago at a large national cancer meeting.

The question caught me by surprise.

While attending a large national cancer meeting, I was having brunch with a friend, a colleague with whom I used to work when I was doing laboratory research, someone whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. She and her husband had brought along two of their oldest and dearest friends, whom they had known for decades, as well as another of my former coworkers from my old lab. We were idly chatting away and eating, when one of the occupational hazards of being a doctor presented itself. Tthe conversation drifted to medical topics. And then it came.

“What do you think of Dr. Gonzalez?”

Ah, hell.
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and the Media

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Do over one in five breast cancers detected by mammography alone really spontaneously regress?

ResearchBlogging.orgIt figures.

Last Wednesday, right before the four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend, as I was far more interested in preparing to have family over the next day than in what was going on in the medical news or the blogs, the results of a most fascinating study hit the news. In Medscape, the title of the news report was Mammography Study Suggests Some Breast Cancer May Spontaneously Regress; on WebMD, the story ran under the title Can Breast Cancer Disappear?; on Medical News Today, Mammograms May Identify Cancers That Would Otherwise Just Regress by Drs. Per-Henrik Zahl, Jan Maehlen, and H. Gilbert Welch. Not surprisingly, the study found its way out of the medical news and into mainstream media outlets as well, given how provocative the findings seemingly are. From the Medscape report on this study:

A mammography study from Norway has come up with the controversial proposal that one fifth of breast cancer detected on screening may spontaneously regress. But there is no easy way to verify whether this is the case, say experts.

The study was published in the November 24 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. It found that the cumulative incidence of invasive breast cancer in a cohort of women, aged 50 to 64 years, who received 3 mammograms over 6 years was 22% higher than in a control group of age-matched women who received only 1 mammogram at the end of a 6-year period.

In their review of possible explanations for the difference in the breast cancer rates between the 2 groups — which had similar risk factors for breast cancer — the researchers write that the “natural course for some screen-detected breast cancers may be to spontaneously regress.”

“I anticipate that many clinicians will react negatively to the possibility of spontaneous regression, said coauthor Jan Maehlen, MD, PhD, professor of pathology at the Ulleval University Hospital, in Oslo, Norway, in an interview with Medscape Oncology.

Before I discuss the study itself, let me briefly discuss why clinicians may have a bit of a problem with the implications of this study, if they accurately reflect the biology of breast cancer.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Science and the Media

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The (Not-So-)Beautiful (Un)Truth about the Gerson protocol and cancer quackery

Note added by editor: The complete movie is now available on YouTube:

The Beautiful Truth

Although this blog is about medicine, specifically the scientific basis of medicine and threats to the scientific basis of medicine regardless of the source, several of us also have an interest in other forms of pseudoscience and threats to other branches of science. One branch of science that is, not surprisingly, critical to medicine is the science of biology, and the organizing theory of biology is the theory of evolution, which was first reported by Charles Darwin and subsequently synthesized with the developing science of genetics in the early 20th century and then with our increasing knowledge of molecular biology, genomics, and proteonomics whose rise ushered us into the 21st century. However, the implications of evolution, namely that humans and apes both evolved from a common ancestor and that humans, for all their belief of being different and superior to animals, are in fact related to animals in the great chain of life going all the way back to single-celled organisms, does not go down well with certain religious fundamentalists, particularly Christian fundamentalists. Whereas I (and I daresay several of my cobloggers) find the interconnectedness of life, including humans, implied by Darwin’s theory to be beautiful and uplifting, many fundamentalists see it as a profound threat to their world view. Consequently, they have attacked the theory of evolution at every turn and tried to insert creationism, particularly the latest incarnation of creationism known as “intelligent design,” into science classes as an “alternative” to “Darwinism.” The manner in which they torture science, logic, and reason to try to cast doubt on a theory that is every bit as rock solid in terms of massive quantities of experimental and observational evidence to support it as any other theory in science, if not more so, is legendary and well documented at blogs such as The Panda’s Thumb and websites such as Talk Origins.

Although one day I plan on writing about how insights from evolutionary theory have led to deeper understandings of human disease and strategies to improve human health in the future, this time I want to concentrate on the similarities in techniques of spreading disinformation between creationists and purveyors of unscientific medical “treatments.” For background, first, you need to be aware of a movie that was released in April. The movie, Expelled!: No Intelligence Allowed was released. Starring Ben Stein at his most unctuous sporting a bullhorn and styling himself as a conservative, buttoned-down version of Angus Young through his choice of apparel in its promotional material, the movie’s main theme is that any academic who “questioned Darwinism” is “expelled” from academia. The basic idea is that “intelligent design” creationism is being “suppressed” by biologists who just can’t accept the thought of the existence of a “designer” (i.e., God). Indeed, the movie goes so far as to equate biologists and scientists who accept the theory of evolution as the best current explanation for the diversity of life to Hitler and the Nazis and their “suppression” of “alternatives” (word choice intentional) to “Darwinism” to Nazi and Stalinist persecution of dissidents and perceived threats to the regime. The movie even features a sequence where Ben Stein visits Dachau and Auschwitz, as though to imply that biologists are busy firing up the ovens for the Brave Maverick Scientists who “dissent from Darwin.”

These Brave Maverick Scientists are a lot like the Brave Maverick Doctors who champion unscientific medicine. After all, Kevin Trudeau has made a cottage industry and sold millions of books based on the claim that there are “natural cures” that “they” (as in doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and the government) don’t want you to know about and that as a consequence the full forces of these groups are being marshalled to “suppress” them and “persecute” the Brave Maverick Doctors who dare to question the “orthodoxy” of “allopathic medicine,” up to and including claims of “Nazi”-like suppression. (Just read those repositories of quackery NaturalNews.com and Whale.to if you don’t believe me.) For the “alternative medicine” movement, it’s all there, in websites, blogs, and books. But one thing that the movement pushing unscientific treatments has lacked, and that’s a movie to call its own, a movie to spread the same message.

That is, until now.

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On the dangers of using valid placebo controls in clinical trials of acupuncture

ResearchBlogging.orgI don’t recall if I’ve ever mentioned this before on this blog, but there was a time when I was less skeptical of acupuncture than I am now. It’s true. Don’t get me wrong, though. I never for a minute considered that the whole rigamarole about “unblocking” or “redirecting” the flow of that mystical life force known as qi had anything to do with whether or not acupuncture did or did not have efficacy treating disease or other conditions. That was clearly a holdover from the pre-scientific medicine times in which most beliefs about the causes of disease involved either the wrath of the gods or vitalism, the latter of which is, when you come right down to it, the philosophical basis upon which many “complementary and alternative” (CAM) modalities are based, especially the so-called “energy healing” modalities, such as reiki, therapeutic touch, and, of course, acupuncture.

However, because unlike so many other “energy healing” methods, acupuncture involved an actual physical action upon the body, namely the insertion of thin needles into the skin to specified depths, it did not seem to me entirely unreasonable that there might be some sort of physiological effect that might produce a therapeutic result. At least, that’s what I used to think until I actually started paying attention to the scientific literature on acupuncture. That’s when I started to realize that “there’s no ‘there’ there,” if you know what I mean. Horribly designed studies with either no controls or utterly inadequate controls tend to be the norm in the acupuncture “literature” (if you can call it that). Moreover, acupuncture was touted as having value for conditions and procedures for which there is no plausible (or even mildly plausible) physiological mechanism by which it could be reasonably postulated to have an effect. Arthritis, allergies, headache, back pain, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), Parkinson’s disease, post-operative nausea, hot flashes in breast cancer patients caused by the anti-estrogen drugs they have to take, infertility, it doesn’t matter. Seemingly acupuncture can do it all; it’s the Swiss Army knife of CAM therapies. Moreover, the “explanations” given to explain “how acupuncture works” seemed increasingly less plausible to me. Most of these explanations involve counterirritation or the release of opioids, and I’ve had an increasingly hard time believing that, even if these mechanisms are at play, they could have anything other than nonspecific effects, with no mechanism to explain how acupuncture could possibly do all things attributed to it. One rule of medical skepticism is that you should be very skeptical of modalities that are touted to be useful for a wide variety of medical conditions that have very different pathophysiology. Indeed, a funny thing happens when rigorous placebo controls are introduced, and that’s sometimes the placebo control does better than the “true” acupuncture; i.e., the evidence for acupuncture, taken in its totality, is completely compatible with placebo effect.

As Harriet Hall put it in her excellent analysis of a study purporting to show that acupuncture is useful for GERD:

This study falls into the category of what I call Tooth Fairy science. You could measure how much money the Tooth Fairy leaves under the pillow, whether she leaves more cash for the first or last tooth, whether the payoff is greater if you leave the tooth in a plastic baggie versus wrapped in Kleenex. You can get all kinds of good data that is reproducible and statistically significant. Yes, you have learned something. But you haven’t learned what you think you’ve learned, because you haven’t bothered to establish whether the Tooth Fairy really exists.

One area that acupuncturists keep needling away at is infertility. Somehow, in the CAM community it’s become conventional wisdom that acupuncture can somehow increase the chance of success for couples undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF). Indeed, early this year I wrote about a meta-analysis that concluded that acupuncture did actually increase the success rate of IVF and why it did not show what its authors thought it showed. Tooth fairy science, indeed.

Now comes yet another study being publicized in the media that examines once again the question of whether sticking needles into women before they undergo IVF can increase their chances of conceiving. I could not help but be extremely amused by the title given to the ScienceDaily story about it: Placebo Acupuncture Is Associated With Higher Pregnancy Rate After IVF Than Real Acupuncture. You have to love a headline like that, and opening paragraphs like this:
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., vaccines, the EPA, and the interface with science-based medicine and public policy

This blog is entitled Science-Based Medicine for a reason, and that’s because we here at SBM believe that the best method to result in the most efficacious treatments for the most people is through the application of science to the evaluation of the biology, pathophysiology, and treatment of disease and disorders.

I may (or may not) be departing a bit from the views of my co-bloggers with this belief, but for purposes of this blog I consider “medicine” to go far beyond what we as physicians do when we undertake to treat patients. In fact, in my view, the purview of science-based medicine should not be so limited but should include any area where decisions, actions, or policy have a direct impact on health. Thus, my definition of science-based medicine encompasses environmental policy, because of the profound effect on human health environmental pollution and toxins can have. Unfortunately for those of us who don’t like its messiness, such a view drives me even more directly into politics than previous issues I’ve taken on. Like Dr. Novella, I rarely write about politics, but when it directly impacts science-based medicine. Mostly, such discussions here on SBM have involved the regulation of the medical profession by government, as Dr. Atwood discussed recently (1, 2, 3) in the context of the difficulties medical boards have in preventing quackery to my discussion of how a quack like Dr. Rashid Buttar could continue to practice in North Carolina, despite his despicable preying upon desperate cancer patients and the parents of children with autism, not to mention the frequent criticisms of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Dr. Sampson, on the other hand, was more than willing to examine a much more explicitly political issue, namely the number of Iraq War dead (1, 2), and that provoked a bit of disagreement with our commenters, not to mention me.

Recently, hot on the heels of the election of Barack Obama in the Presidential election last week, an issue relevant to several aspects of where science-based medicine intersects public policy popped up. Steve Novella has already commented on it on his own blog, as have numerous other medical bloggers, science bloggers, and political bloggers but I feel justified in commenting on it here, for the reasons that I’ve just mentioned. The controversy is that antivaccine activist and true believer in the scientifically discredited notion that mercury in the thimerosal preservative in vaccines causes autism, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is being seriously considered by Barack Obama either to head the Environmental Protection Agency or even to be Secretary of the Interior. Like our fearless leader Steve, I believe that such a selection would be an unmitigated disaster for science policy in government.
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