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Gender Differences and Why They Don’t Matter So Much

Several incidents have recently created divisions within the skeptical community.  The latest one was over a casual comment Michael Shermer made in an online talk show. He was asked why the gender split in atheism was not 50/50, “as it should be.” He said he thought it probably was 50/50, and suggested that the perception of unequal numbers might be because attending and speaking at atheist conferences was more of “a guy thing.” They might have asked him to explain what he meant. They didn’t. He didn’t mean to say it was encoded in the male DNA. He was simply recognizing a reality of our society: male/female interests and behavior tend to differ due to all sorts of cultural influences. Among other things, women might find it more difficult to attend meetings because of lower incomes and the need to arrange for babysitters. Watching sports on TV with other guys and beer is a guy thing too, but not because it’s hardwired into the male brain. It’s a guy thing because of customs and attitudes in our society.  And it certainly doesn’t mean women are less capable or that societal influences can’t be overcome.

Nevertheless, Ophelia Benson assumed Shermer meant:

that women are too stupid to do nontheism. Unbelieving in God is thinky work, and women don’t do thinky, because “that’s a guy thing.”

That’s not what he meant. It’s not fair to judge him by one off-the-cuff remark. His record stands for itself: there is not a hint of sexism in his writings and he has always fully acknowledged women’s intelligence and their ability to think critically.

In a rebuttal article, Shermer quoted me:

I think it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every sphere of human endeavor. Science has shown that real differences exist. We should level the playing field and ensure there are no preventable obstacles, then let the chips fall where they may.

PZ Myers called this “a sexist remark.” (more…)

Posted in: Evolution, General, History

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Worms, Germs, and Dirt: What Can They Teach Us About Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases?

Whipworms in the intestine

Whipworms in the intestine. Click to enlarge.

Humans evolved in an environment where they were exposed to animals, dirt, and a variety of pathogens and parasites. Our immune systems evolved to cope with that environment. Now most of us live in a different environment, with safe drinking water, flush toilets, food inspection, immunizations, and public sanitation. This means that we are far less likely than our ancestors to die of infectious diseases or to harbor intestinal worms. But it seems that the cleaner we get, the more likely we are to suffer from allergies and autoimmune diseases. One hypothesis is that our immune systems evolved to require early challenges by parasites and pathogens in order to develop properly. A hygienic environment fails to give our immune system the exercise it needs, resulting in imbalances and malfunctions.

The hygiene hypothesis was first proposed to explain observations like these:

  • Hay fever and allergies were less common in large families where children were presumably exposed to more infections through their siblings.
  • Polio attack rates were higher in high socioeconomic groups than in lower ones.
  • Allergies and many other diseases were less common in the developing world.

Investigation of these and other phenomena is contributing to a better understanding of the immune system, which is a good thing. At the same time, it has led some people to deliberately infect themselves with intestinal worms in an attempt to cure their allergies and autoimmune diseases, which may not be such a good thing. These treatments are far from ready for prime time, are risky, and they have a high yuck factor. The very idea of deliberately infecting yourself with worms is unpalatable, and finding wiggly live creatures in your stool or passing a 20 foot tapeworm are not generally considered to be pleasant experiences.  (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Epidemiology, Evolution

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dōTERRA: Multilevel Marketing of Essential Oils

A stay-at-home mom recently e-mailed me. She is a former CAM user who once treated her infant’s colic with homeopathy but has since seen the light and is now thinking skeptically. She asked that I look into the dōTERRA company, seller of essential oils: concentrated extracts distilled from plants, containing the “essence” or distinctive odor of the plant. She said:

…moms, well educated and seemingly rational moms, will believe anything. This isn’t a big deal if we are talking about sugar pills trying to cure crying that has no cause. However, I recently attended a dōTERRA “talk” (aka pressure to buy) about how essential oils can cure everything and anything, including one woman’s mother’s skin cancer. I didn’t want to offend this mom by calling her a quack, so I walked away spending 60 bucks on oils to be polite (this was the least amount I could spend and I used these oils to make my home smell nice, even though they were intended to solve all sorts of skin and digestive problems. I didn’t want to use them without knowing if they actually worked).

Instead of stressing the aromas, the focus was on the need to spend hundreds of dollars on these products to keep your family healthy. A handout showed how you could replace everything in your medicine cabinet with an essential oil alternative.  She said:

The reps talked about how conventional medicine failed them and how they never go to the doctor anymore because the oils are a better cure.

(more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Support Cancer Research and Own a Piece of the SkepDoc’s Handiwork

I donated a knit afghan to the auction by Skeptics for the Protection of Cancer Patients. I made it myself. Proceeds go to cancer research in the name of Stanislaw Burzynski as a birthday present to publicize his many misdeeds against cancer patients.  It’s warm and cuddly. Please consider bidding to reward my MANY hours of work and support cancer research.  You are welcome to call me a “knit-wit.” Click here to bid.

Tree_of_Life

Posted in: Announcements, Cancer

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Houstoncancerquack.com Campaign Aims to Shame Burzynski While Raising Money for Legitimate Cancer Research

David Gorski already mentioned this on Monday,  but Burzynski’s birthday is rapidly approaching (January 23rd) and I want to encourage our readers to donate to the Burzynski birthday campaign.

Burzynski’s misdeeds are highlighted by the stories on the website The OTHER Burzynski Patient Group   If you haven’t already visited that site and read some of the stories, please do. 26 patient stories have already been posted, with another hundred or so to come. They show a pattern of lies, unethical practices, exorbitant charges, and harm to vulnerable patients. This has to be stopped!

Over $10,000 has already been raised. It’s tax deductible and easy: just click on the donate button here and supply your credit card information. The goal is to raise $30,000, the amount that a Burzynski patient typically has to pay for treatment that is misrepresented as a clinical research study! (In most legitimate clinical trials, patients are paid, not charged). The funds will be given to St. Jude Children’s Hospital for cancer research, and Burzynski will be notified on his birthday that it is a birthday present for him. He will be offered the opportunity to match whatever has been donated. He can well afford it from his ill-gotten gains. He lives in a $6 million, 14,495-square-foot mansion.

We talk a lot and complain a lot, but we seldom have an opportunity like this to actually do something, to simultaneously support science-based medicine and publicize the sins of a miscreant. Please donate.

 

 

Posted in: Announcements, Cancer

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Nonsense about the Health Effects of Electromagnetic Radiation

Helke Ferrie has written an article for The CCPA Monitor, a monthly journal published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, entitled “Dirty electricity, EMF radiation can be removed or reduced.” It is in the June 2012 issue, and is not available online. She calls herself a science writer, but this is not the writing of a person who understands science. There is hardly a word of truth in it. It’s a classic example of pseudoscientific propaganda, an appalling farrago of false statements and fallacious arguments. The nonsense starts with the very first sentence:

The symptoms of electropollution-induced sickness involve all organs with many debilitating symptoms, from skin rashes to cancer; they are part of the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) spectrum.

The diagnoses of “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “multiple chemical sensitivity” are not recognized by the medical and scientific communities. Up to 5% of the population has come to attribute a large variety of nonspecific symptoms to non-ionizing electromagnetic fields from cell phones and other common electrical devices or to the chemicals in their environment. Their complaints have been thoroughly evaluated. Numerous studies and systematic reviews have been done; they are summarized in a Wikipedia article.  Just to give one example, a systematic review published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2006 analyzed 31 double blind studies comparing real radiation to sham radiation. Patients couldn’t tell the difference. 24 of the studies found no effect, 7 reported “some” supporting evidence (2 of which could not be replicated on subsequent trials by the same researchers), 3 were false positives attributed to statistical artefacts, and the final 2 had mutually incompatible results. They concluded:

The symptoms described by “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” sufferers can be severe and are sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” is unrelated to the presence of EMF.

(more…)

Posted in: Public Health, Science and the Media

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Rituximab for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Jumping the Gun

Now that the XMRV myth has been put to rest,  patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) are no longer jumping the gun to demand anti-retroviral treatments. But they are jumping the gun in new ways, based on very preliminary data coming out of Norway.

A correspondent in Norway wrote to tell me patients from Norway with myalgic encephalitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) are travelling to the US to have Dr. Andreas Kogelnik in San Francisco treat them with IV infusions of rituximab, apparently to no avail. A course of treatment costs over $6000, not to speak of travel and other expenses. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Pharmaceuticals

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Beyond Informed Consent: Shared Decision-Making

Happy New Year to all our readers! Today marks the completion of 5 years of SBM and the beginning of year 6. My contributions, at one a week, have now reached a total of 260. My first post on this blog, 5 years ago, was a review of an important book about science and alternative medicine, Snake Oil ScienceThis year I’d like to start with an important book about communicating medical science to patients, Critical Decisions,  by Peter A. Ubel, M.D.

I was wrong about informed consent. I thought informed consent was a matter of explaining the risks and benefits of treatments to patients so they could decide what they wanted to do.  That was naïve, simplistic, and misguided. Ubel’s book has radically changed my thinking about how doctors should interact with patients.

Paternalism in medicine is dead. Patient autonomy rules. We respect the right of patients to determine their own treatments, even if their choices seem unwise to us. Patients should do what they want. But there’s a problem: patients may not know what they really want. Emotions and unconscious and irrational forces influence their medical decisions. Preferences can change from one moment to the next, and they can shift with subtle changes in how treatments are described and how the issues are framed. Doctors need to develop a better understanding of what is going on in their patients’ minds, of how the way they present treatment options can inadvertently influence patients, and of how they can participate with patients in a process of shared decision-making. It’s possible to provide direction without paternalism. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Medical Ethics

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An Alternative “Truth” About Flu Shots

Vaccines, and flu shots in particular, have been covered ad nauseum on this blog; but the anti-vaccine propaganda never stops, so forgive me for bringing it up again. A correspondent inquired about a podcast by Steve Wright on Revolution Health Radio entitled “The Truth About Flu Shots (and What to do Instead).” You can either listen or read the transcript. It’s just too funny to pass up. That is, it would be funny if it weren’t endangering our public health by spreading misinformation.   (more…)

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Vaccines

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Storytelling in Medicine

We can’t stress often enough that anecdotes are not reliable evidence; but on the other hand, patient stories can serve a valuable purpose in medical education. Hearing how a disease affected an individual patient is more powerful than reading a list of symptoms in a textbook and is far more likely to fix the disease in the student’s memory. When I think of Parkinson’s disease, the first thing that comes to mind is my first patient with Parkinson’s and how he responded to levodopa; and the first thing that may come to many people’s minds is Michael J. Fox. Of course, we must realize that they may not be typical examples; but putting a face to a diagnosis serves as a memory aid and a hook to hang the rest of our knowledge on.

In his new book, The Power of Patient Stories: Learning Moments in Medicine, Paul F. Griner, MD relates more than 50 stories that distill the wisdom he has developed over a 58-year career of practicing medicine and teaching young doctors. He describes them as “stories that provided a learning moment for me.” It’s interesting to see how much medicine has changed over his professional lifetime and yet how cases from the 50s and 60s are still highly relevant. Ethical dilemmas and lessons about medical practice come alive under his pen. Each story is followed by incisive questions and exercises that engage the reader and challenge him to think about the issues. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics

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