Note: This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine. Space limitations resulted in omitting some of what I wanted to say. I’m taking advantage of having a blog to publish the entire article as originally submitted.
On an episode of Mythbusters, Adam Savage was shown a video clip that contradicted his memory of something he had said. He responded, “I reject your reality… and substitute my own.” He was joking. Unfortunately, the world is full of people who reject reality and who are not joking.
James Randi tells a story about a TV program that featured Uri Geller doing his standard trick of bending a key. Afterwards, the program’s host said it couldn’t possibly have been a trick because Uri had “never touched” the key. The host was then shown the recorded program, which proved that Geller clearly had the key in his hands, for two-and-a-half minutes. Instead of admitting having been wrong, the host exclaimed, “Well, that’s not how it happened.”
One of my own ancestors was a pro at this kind of thing. I’ll call her Aunt S (for stubborn). She had once tried tinned sardines, hated them, and refused to ever touch sardines again. One day she came into my grandmother’s kitchen when she was frying up some large fresh sardines a friend had brought her. Aunt S ate some, proclaimed them tasty, then asked, “What kind of fish were those, Mary?” My grandmother told her they were sardines. She protested, “No they weren’t! I don’t eat sardines!”
I’ll be the first to admit that the quality of TV programming, especially network programs, leaves much to be desired. Critics of television have blamed TV for everything from violence to obesity. Now studies have shown that teens who watch sexy programs are more likely to become sexually active and to get pregnant. I’m not so sure that these studies really show what TV critics think they show. My local newspaper was equally skeptical.
We frequently criticize media coverage of scientific issues, so for once I’d like to offers kudos to the Tacoma News Tribune for publishing this editorial:
TV and teen pregnancy: A lot else is also at work
THE NEWS TRIBUNE
Published: November 5th, 2008 12:30 AM
For parents, the headline was ominous: “Study links TV, teen pregnancy.”
The article that appeared in The News Tribune Tuesday reported on a Rand Corp. study published in this month’s issue of Pediatrics magazine. Researchers say they found a link between higher teen pregnancy rates and watching television shows that have lots of sexual dialogue and behavior – ones like “Sex in the City, “That ‘70s Show” and “Friends.”
The implication is that if teens watch such racy programming, they’re more likely to become sexually active themselves – and therefore more at risk of getting pregnant or impregnating someone else.
But couldn’t something else also be at work here? (more…)
One-fourth of the veterans of the 1990-91 Gulf War complain of persistent memory and concentration problems, chronic headaches, widespread pain, gastrointestinal problems, and other chronic abnormalities not explained by well-established diagnoses. Treatments are ineffective and symptoms do not improve over time. Gulf War Syndrome or Gulf War Illness is a controversial diagnosis, and some have questioned whether it really exists. Now a new report from the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses has concluded that Gulf War Illness is real and that it is probably attributable to pyridostigmine bromide (PB) and pesticide exposures.
Its major conclusions:
- Gulf War illness is a serious condition that affects at least one fourth of the 697,000 U.S. veterans who served in the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
- Gulf War illness fundamentally differs from trauma and stress-related syndromes described after other wars.
- Evidence strongly and consistently indicates that two Gulf War neurotoxic exposures are causally associated with Gulf War illness: 1) use of pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills, given to protect troops from effects of nerve agents, and 2) pesticide use during deployment.
The Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses was mandated by Congress and appointed in 2002. The report, published November 17, 2008, is an exhaustive review of all available data, including some that is unpublished. It runs to 454 pages, has multiple authors and consultants, lists 1840 references and has multiple appendices. I can’t pretend to have mastered all the information, but I have read enough to understand the basis of their conclusions. They are based on good evidence and logic, but they leave me with some doubts.
AllergiCare Relief Centers are a chain of franchises started by a man called David Tucker who is not listed as having an MD or any other title. They offer diagnosis of allergies by biofeedback and treatment of allergies by laser acupuncture. They admit that the method is not backed by any science, and they claim that what they are doing is not medical treatment.
Responsible journalism might have investigated this as quackery or practicing medicine without a license. Instead, irresponsible journalism has helped promote these centers and has given them invaluable free advertising.
From one news story:
Tucker said the device works based on biofeedback. The allergy sufferer wears a sensing clip on his finger for testing, and the computer simulates the bio-frequency for 10,000 known allergens. As the body responds to those stimuli, the computer lists which substances are irritants. “This digitized allergen actually matches the harmonic frequency of the actual allergen, making the body believe it is in contact with the real substance,” Tucker said. “The body will react if it is allergic to the particular substance.” ….Once the allergens are identified, a laser stimulates biomeridian points on the body — the same points used in acupuncture and acupressure. Tucker said the idea is to strengthen organs to act properly the next time they encounter the allergen — that is, to treat them as harmless…So far, there is no science to prove the devices work, but Tucker claims a 70 percent positive response rate. (more…)
Over 26 million Americans are taking statin drugs. Some people think they should be available over-the-counter without a prescription, and it has even been facetiously suggested that they should be added to our drinking water. The protective effect of statins in cardiovascular disease and in high-risk patients with high cholesterol levels is well established. But what about people with no heart disease and normal cholesterol levels – can they benefit too?
The New England Journal of Medicine has pre-released an important new study on statins online prior to its planned publication date of November 20, 2008. It is certain to stir up a lot of controversy, and the International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics will not be happy, because it contradicts some of their favorite arguments. They have claimed that statins do more harm than good, that reducing cholesterol levels is harmful to health, that the benefits of statins and/or cholesterol lowering do not extend to women and the elderly, and that studies showing benefits of statins are meaningless because they do not show reduction of overall mortality. This study indicates otherwise. (more…)
Some people think circumcision is mutilation; others want one even if they don’t know what it is. When I was working in an Air Force hospital emergency room one night, a young airman came in requesting a circumcision. I asked him why he wanted one. He said a couple of his friends had had it done, and he’d heard it was a good idea, and he was going to be getting out of the Air Force pretty soon and wanted to have it done while Uncle Sam would still foot the bill. I examined him: he had a neatly circumcised penis without so much as a hint of any foreskin remnant. I’ve always wondered what he thought we were going to cut off.
The subject of circumcision evokes strong emotions. Some people think of neonatal circumcision as a religious duty or a valuable preventive health measure; others think it is the epitome of child abuse. I have no strong feelings either way. I’m not sure what I would have decided if I’d had sons; fortunately my children were both daughters so I didn’t have to decide. I’m going to try to stand back and look at the scientific evidence objectively. What are the medical benefits and risks of circumcision? (more…)
Sometimes I read an article in a medical journal that makes me say, “Well, duh! I could have told you that without a study.” Sometimes I read collected data that make me ask, “So what?” Sometimes I read an article that makes me wonder what kind of pogo stick they used to jump from their data to their conclusions. Sometimes I read a study that is so poorly conceived that you couldn’t hope to get any useful information from it. Sometimes I read a study that reminds me of class projects or term papers where you just thought of something easy to do to fill the squares to get credit. Sometimes I read a study funded by the NCCAM that makes me very angry that they wasted my tax dollars. Sometimes all these things coincide in one article.
“Ophthalmology Patients’ Religious and Spiritual Beliefs: An Opportunity to Build Trust in the Patient-Physician Relationship” is such an article. A questionnaire was anonymously filled out by 124 consecutive return patients in one ophthalmologist’s practice. It asked about their religious and spiritual beliefs and their understanding and level of concern about their eye condition. (more…)
Note: This is slightly revised from an article I originally wrote as a “SkepDoc” column for Skeptic magazine. It was pre-released online in eSkeptic and it has already generated a lot of comments, including “a truly amazing piece of peurile pseudo-intellectualism,” “an ad hominem attack on one form of alternative medicine so beset by poor thinking that one must come to the conclusion this woman might just be paid to write such propaganda,” and “twaddle wrapped in swaddling rhetoric.” (I treasure comments like those as evidence that my critics are so bankrupt of real arguments that they have to dip into the insult pouch for ammunition.) I thought it would be interesting to post it here on the blog and see how much controversy it would stir up among my co-bloggers and readers. Please keep in mind that it was written for a popular audience and excuse the lack of scholarly citations. You may recognize some of the studies I refer to from previous blog entries.
“Alternative” medicine is by definition medicine that has not been scientifically proven and has not been accepted into mainstream scientific medicine. The question I keep hearing is, “But what about acupuncture? It’s been proven to work, it’s supported by lots of good research, more and more doctors are using it, and insurance companies even pay for it.”
It’s time the acupuncture myth was punctured – preferably with an acupuncture needle. Almost everything you’ve heard about acupuncture is wrong. (more…)
I recently learned of a study entitled “Dominican Children with HIV not Receiving Antiretrovirals: Massage Therapy Influences their Behavior and Development.” It disturbed me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. They’re massaging these kids but letting them die of AIDS? I went back and read the complete article, and it left me even more disturbed.
They studied 48 Dominican children ages 2-8 with untreated HIV/AIDS, randomizing them to receive twice weekly sessions of either massage or play therapy for 12 weeks. The abstract said that those in the massage group improved in self-help abilities and communication, and that children over the age of 6 showed a decrease in depressive/anxious behaviors and negative thoughts. That’s what the abstract said. The text revealed a more complex story. (more…)