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Hostility Towards Scientists And Jenny McCarthy’s Latest Video

I’ve been fairly quiet about Jenny McCarthy’s campaign against childhood vaccinations, partly because Dr. David Gorski has covered the issue so thoroughly already, and partly because of my “do not engage” policy relating to the deeply irrational (i.e. there’s no winning an argument with “crazy.”) But this week I was filled with a renewed sense of urgency regarding the anti-vaccinationist movement for two reasons: 1) I received a personal email from a woman who is being treated with hostility by her peers for her pro-science views on vaccines and 2) a friend forwarded me a video of Jenny McCarthy speaking directly to moms, instructing them to avoid vaccinating their kids or giving them milk or wheat because of their supposed marijuana-like addictive properties.
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Being Right Versus Being Influential

On May 9th I had the pleasure of lecturing to an audience of critical thinkers at the NYC Skeptics meeting. The topic of discussion was pseudoscience on the Internet – and I spent about 50 minutes talking about all the misleading health information and websites available to (and frequented by) patients. The common denominator for most of these well-intentioned but misguided efforts is a fundamental lack of understanding of the scientific method, and the myriad ways that humans can fool ourselves into perceiving a cause and effect relationship between unrelated phenomena.

But most importantly, we had the chance to touch upon a theme that has been troubling me greatly over the past couple of years: the rise in influence of those untrained in science on matters of medicine. I have been astonished by the ability of “thought leaders” like Jenny McCarthy to gain a broad platform of influence (i.e. Oprah Winfrey’s TV network) despite her obviously flawed beliefs about the pathophysiology of autism. Why is it so hard to find a medical voice of reason in mainstream media?

The answer is probably related to two issues: first, good science makes bad television, and second, physicians are going about PR and communications in the wrong way. We are taught to put emotions aside as we carefully weigh evidence to get to the bottom of things. But we are not taught to reinfuse the subject with emotion once we’ve come to an impartial consensus. Instead, we tend to bicker about statistical analyses, and alienate John Q. Public with what appears to him as academic minutiae and hair-splitting.

I’m not sure what we can or should offer in place of our “business as usual” behavior – but I’ve noticed that being right isn’t the same as being influential. I wonder how we can better advance the cause of science (for the sake of public health at a minimum) to an audience drawn more to passion than to substance?

I would really enjoy your input, dear readers of Science Based Medicine, because I’m at a loss as to what we should do next to reach people in our current culture, and with new communications platforms. What would you recommend?

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

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Risks Associated With Complementary And Alternative Medicine (CAM): A Brief Overview

Having grown up on a dairy farm, I am one of the least likely people to object to the deification of yogurt. However, as a critical thinker, I cannot help but resist the idea (promoted by some health sites) that probiotics are a reasonable alternative to chemotherapy in the treatment of colon cancer. And there are many other equally unhelpful claims being made all the time. Fish oil for ALS anyone?

What amazes me about the “cherry yoga” camp (as my friend Bob Stern likes to call it), is that they aggressively market CAM as “harmless” and “natural.” They point to the warning labels and informed consents associated with science-based medicines as evidence that the alternative must be safer. In reality, many alternative practices are less effective, and can carry serious risks (usually undisclosed to the patient). For your interest, I’ve gathered some examples of risks associated with common alternative practices that have been described by the CDC and in the medical literature:
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy

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Toxin Obsession: Celebrities & Shampoo

This week I thought you all might enjoy a reprint of a humorous post from Better Health. Dr. Rob Lamberts explores the curious obsession that some Hollywood celebrities have with “toxins.” Sometimes laughter is the best medicine:

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Somehow the medical community has missed a very important news Item.  In her website goop.com (dang, I was going to go for that domain), movie star Gwyneth Paltrow weighed in on a very frightening medical subject.

Shampoo.

“A couple of years ago, I was asked to give a quote for a book concerning environmental toxins and their effects on our children.

“While I was reading up on the subject, I was seized with fear about what the research said. Foetuses, infants and toddlers are basically unable to metabolise toxins the way that adults are and we are constantly filling our environments with chemicals that may or may not be safe.

“The research is troubling; the incidence of diseases in children such as asthma, cancer and autism have shot up exponentially and many children we all know and love have been diagnosed with developmental issues like ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder].”

Apparently, she went on to point the finger at shampoo as a potential major problem in our society and raised a possible link between shampoo and childhood cancers.  Now, I am not sure how one can use shampoo on the head of a foetus (or a fetus, for that matter), but we have to tip our hat to celebrities for bringing such associations to the forefront.

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Posted in: Humor, Science and the Media

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Double-Talk And Paternalism

One of the more frustrating things about practitioners who promote unsafe and scientifically discredited medical practices is their tendency to change their message for different audiences. One day they’ll tell you that they espouse only evidence-based practices and the next they’ll be promoting snake oil. This double talk is hard to combat, since to disprove them one would essentially have to provide a video of their contradictory remarks.

One day I participated in a series of business meetings with a CAM practitioner in attendance (he was an MD who graduated from UCSF). During one meeting he boldly proclaimed his support of scientifically rigorous research, and praised the Cochrane Collaborative’s efforts to provide systematic reviews of the evidence (or lack thereof) for various practices.

Several hours later we were sitting together in another meeting in which I objected to the publication of a consumer article that would assist parents of children with autism in finding a DAN! practitioner who could provide chelation therapy to their children. I explained that there was no evidence for the efficacy of such treatments, and plenty of evidence for their harm (including the death of at least one child that I’d read about in the news). I suggested that an article describing these dangers might be in order, but that an article encouraging chelation use for autism was simply unethical and I would not allow it to be published.

Instead of agreeing with me, the CAM MD suggested that I was being “narrow” and that I should allow consumers to “explore all their options.” I was stunned. This was the same person who had just said that he fully supported scientific inquiry. So I asked him how he could say that he supported evidence-based medicine, and then turn around and ignore evidence at will – even at the peril of human life.

His response dumbfounded me:

“I am just as comfortable practicing within an evidence-based framework as I am outside it.”
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Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Differences Of Opinion

After my fairly recent awakening from shruggieness  (i.e. a condition in which one is largely unaware of or uninterested in CAM) I decided to discuss my concerns about pseudoscience with my friends. One particular friend is a nationally recognized physician who believes in the importance of accurate health information and the promotion of science. However, he sees no urgent need to warn people against snake oil, and so long as it’s correctly labeled he doesn’t seem to mind it co-existing with scientific alternatives.

My friend and I had dinner a few weeks ago, and our conversation was both animated and disappointing. I somehow felt inadequate in conveying my objections (both ethical and scientific) to the promotion of pseudoscience. My best explanations were met with cheerful rebuttals, and while not intellectually convincing to me, those retorts satisfied my friend just fine. I guess the bottom line was that he was more interested in maintaining his position than reconsidering it… and so it left me feeling rather frustrated and a little sad.
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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Book Review: Triumph Of The Heart, The Story Of Statins

Triumph of the Heart, as its name does not suggest, is about science. The book’s author, Jie Jack Li, is a medicinal chemist who meticulously reviews the history relevant to the discovery of lipid-lowering drugs. He spares no details, even recounting the amusing quarrels and quirks of the scientists engaged in the “apocryphal showdowns” leading to the manufacture of cholesterol in a laboratory.

The personalities of the various scientists and Nobel laureates described in the book are highly entertaining. From beating one another with umbrellas, to insisting on wearing blue clothing only, to egos so large and unappealing as to empty an entire academic center of all its promising young recruits, one has the distinct impression that brilliance does not go hand-in-hand with grace.

That being said, each of these scientists did seem to share a common approach to research: carefully testing hypotheses, repeating peer study results to confirm them, and patiently exploring complex biochemical pathways over periods of decades. The physicians, physicists, and chemists showed an incredible ability to doggedly pursue answers to specific questions – understanding that the results might influence human health. But even more importantly, they were each willing to invest their careers in analysis that may never lead to anything more than a dead end. In fact, the book is full of examples of great ideas, developed over decades, that did not lead to a marketable drug. In some cases the research was halted due to lack of efficacy, in others political forces or personal whims influenced the course.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Pharmaceuticals

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When Should We Call A Quack A Quack?

It is not uncommon for Science Based Medicine to receive complaints about the tone of our writing. Some people feel that it is indelicate to use the “q” word (for the uninitiated, “q” is for “quack”) when describing practitioners who promote disproven therapies with jubilant fervor. Others believe it unkind to lump “well meaning” alternative medicine experts in with those who are engaged in overtly illegal activities.

We are all affected by the tension between wanting to call a spade a spade and respecting our cultural need to be polite. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this inner conflict is Orac’s Respectful Insolence blog. As the name implies, Orac is both thoughtful and brutally honest – he expresses our communal reticence to make waves, but follows up with a reasoned hostility that is quite understandable, given the circumstances described in each post. Respectful Insolence is fun to read because it is educational, persuasive, and expressive – and it captures how many of us feel about various forms of hucksterism. However, snake oil salesmen and their sympathizers are unlikely to enjoy the blog.

Here at Science Based Medicine, readers find a wide range of expression with a common commitment to science and reason. Just as physicians have different practice styles (some are more nurturing in temperament, others offer “tough love”) so too do we authors vary in tone. For those readers who favor one style over another – I hope you’ll find the voice that suits you and return regularly for more. Please don’t assume that one particular post is representative of the entire blog, and please don’t be offended by the legitimate exasperation of writers who have suffered through decades of observing swindlers swindle.
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Posted in: Cancer, Science and Medicine

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Placebo Therapies: Are They Ethical?

Is it ethical to overstate the efficacy of a treatment option, if it might lead to a patient’s enhanced experience of that treatment? Your response to this question may reveal the degree to which you favor Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Let me explain.

As far as I can tell, no CAM treatment has been proven effective beyond placebo. (If you’re not convinced of this, I suggest you take a look at Barker Bausell’s book on the subject.) That means that treatments like acupuncture, homeopathy, Reiki, energy healing, Traditional Chinese Medicine (such as cupping), and others (like “liver flushes”) perform about as well as placebos (inert alternatives) in head-to-head studies. Therefore, the effects of these treatments cannot be explained by inherent mechanisms of action, but rather the mind’s perception of their value. In essence, the majority of CAM treatments are likely to be placebo therapies, with different levels of associated ritual.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that CAM therapies are in fact placebos – the question then becomes, is it ethical to prescribe placebos to patients?  It seems that many U.S. physicians believe that it is not appropriate to overstate potential therapeutic benefits to patients. In fact, the AMA strictly prohibits such a practice:

“Physicians may use [a] placebo for diagnosis or treatment only if the patient is informed of and agrees to its use.”

Moreover, a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes:

“Outside the setting of clinical trials, there is no justification for the use of placebos.”

However, there is some wavering on the absolute contraindication of placebos. A recent survey conducted by researchers at the Mayo Clinic asked physicians if it was permissible to give a dextrose tablet to a non-diabetic patient with fibromyalgia if that tablet was shown to be superior to no treatment in a clinical trial. In this case 62% of respondents said that it would be acceptable to give the pill.

The authors note:

“Before 1960, administration of inert substances to promote placebo effects or to satisfy patients’ expectations of receiving a prescribed treatment was commonplace in medical practice. With the development of effective pharmaceutical interventions and the increased emphasis on informed consent, the use of placebo treatments in clinical care has been widely criticized. Prescribing a placebo, it is claimed, involves deception and therefore violates patients’ autonomy and informed consent. Advocates of placebo treatments argue that promoting the placebo effect might be one of the most effective treatments available for many chronic conditions and can be accomplished without deception.”

How do you feel about placebos? Are they a legitimate option in some cases, or a violation of patient autonomy and informed consent?
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Posted in: Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Evidence-Based Legislation? Lessons From Abroad

President Obama appears to be refreshingly pro-science in his outlook, publicly lauding objectivity and careful analysis. He has even been credited with saying that “we need evidence-based legislation” in regards to public policy. The New York Times reports:

Agencies will be expected to pick science advisers based on expertise, not political ideology, the memorandum said, and will offer whistle-blower protections to employees who expose the misuse or suppression of scientific information.

The idea, the president said in remarks before an audience of lawmakers, scientists, patients advocates and patients in the East Room, is to ensure that “we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology”: a line that drew more applause than any other.

But when it comes to healthcare reform, many policy decisions put us in uncharted territory, with intelligent arguments on both sides of many legislative options and no American historical frame of reference to help us determine the best course of action. In times like these, perhaps the best we can do (to promote “evidence-based legislation”) is to study similar policy decisions made by our Canadian and European counterparts.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation

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