The principles we espouse on Science-Based Medicine are vitally important, but some of the subjects we address are not so important in the big scheme of things. Homeopathy and electrodermal diagnostic devices don’t actually harm very many people. For today’s post, I’m going to follow the Willie Sutton rule and go where the money is, so to speak.
Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death. No prospective double blind randomized controlled studies have been done, or ever could be done; but a mountain of evidence converging from many avenues has established the health dangers of smoking beyond any doubt. Hill’s criteria of causation have been amply fulfilled. Smoking causes 90% of all deaths from lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It increases the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, several types of cancer, infertility, stillbirth, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), osteoporosis, and premature skin aging (wrinkles). The dangers of second-hand smoke have been amply documented, and where smoke-free laws have been passed there has been a drop in the incidence of heart attacks and of emergency room visits for children with asthma.
Two new studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine reinforce what we already knew and offer both good news and bad news. (more…)
Electrodermal testing is a bogus procedure where measurements of skin conductance with a biofeedback device are entered into a computer to diagnose nonexistent health problems and “energy imbalances” and to recommend treatments for them, often involving the sale of homeopathic remedies and other useless products. It falls under the general category of EAV (Electro Acupuncture of Voll). The history and variants of EAV are explained in an article on Quackwatch.
I’ve written about electrodermal testing before. I’ve explained how it amounts to fooling patients with a computerized Magic 8 Ball and I’ve discussed the legal and regulatory issues.
Now Stephen Barrett (founder of Quackwatch and Vice-President of the Institute for Science in Medicine) has written an article in FACT (Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies) entitled “Bogus electrodermal testing devices: where are the regulators?” He points out that existing regulations are sufficient to ban these devices, but that regulators have failed to take appropriate action.
Many SBM readers will remember the late, great Barry Beyerstein, a luminary of the skeptical movement and author of a classic article that has been cited many times on SBM, an explanation of why bogus therapies seem to work.
One of his greatest personal accomplishments is not as well known: he produced an exceptional daughter, Lindsay Beyerstein, a freelance writer, philosopher, and polymath who stepped into her father’s shoes as a faculty member of the annual Skeptic’s Toolbox workshop after his death and has done a truly admirable job there.
Among Lindsay’s many other activities, she works for the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a nonprofit that honors excellence in socially conscious journalism. One of her goals has been to reward excellence in science journalism. Bob Ortega has just received a Sidney Award for his exposé of a widely used HPV (human papillomavirus) test that is not FDA approved and has an unacceptably high rate of false negative results. Her interview with him was published on the Hillman Foundation website. On SBM, we frequently criticize journalists who get the science wrong. For a change, I’d like to congratulate Mr. Ortega for not only getting the science right, but for accomplishing something that could potentially save lives.
I wore a T-shirt at The Amazing Meeting 2012 that generated a lot of controversy. You can see a picture of it on my Wikipedia article. I didn’t want to talk about the T-shirt, but I’ve been repeatedly challenged to explain myself, and I’m afraid I can no longer avoid it. Steven Novella has recommended that we try to give other people’s arguments the most charitable interpretation. I hope my critics will do that, but I’m not optimistic. If past experience is any guide, they will misinterpret my explanation and put it in the worst possible light, which is why I haven’t offered it before. So be it; I have a tough skin. Once this T-shirt explanation is out of the way, I will have done my duty and had my say and will feel free to ignore all these divisive and nonproductive arguments. I don’t plan to write about gender or feminism or the squabbles in the skeptic movement again.
First, a brief digression about charitable interpretations and the whole “queer” discussion. I said “most” people in the LGBT community find the term offensive. Instead of attacking me as totally clueless, a charitable reader might have gently corrected me by providing quantitative evidence that the majority of people in the LGBT community do not find the word offensive (so far, no one has provided such evidence). When shown quantitative evidence, I would gladly have changed the word “most” to “many” or “some” or even “a few,” depending on the actual numbers, and we would all have learned something. What actually happened served as a perfect illustration of the points I made in my “Enemies” article. The ensuing discussion was bizarre, nit-picking, surreal, divisive, unproductive, and failed to emphasize the one thing we ought to all agree on: we don’t want to use labels that others find offensive. The silly quibbling about my use of the one word “most” just derailed the discussion from the more important issues, and from all the other words in my post.
To set the scene for the T-shirt incident, there was a complex backstory involving Elevatorgate, Richards Dawkins, insults and threats directed at women, a perception that TAM’s anti-harassment policy was not being enforced, objections to a statement JREF President DJ Grothe made, accusations that Grothe had lied about reports of harassment, and numerous other incidents, many of which were blown way out of proportion. All this had left big chips firmly glued to shoulders. (more…)
Note: The previous post is my usual weekly contribution to SBM. I am taking the liberty of posting this additional entry today on an issue that is peripheral to Science Based Medicine. If you are not interested in the recent squabbles within the skeptical movement, you will probably want to skip it. But it does respond to a detailed critique of an article I posted here two weeks ago, and some might find that of interest. We have seen the same kind of behavior on this blog, where commenters have responded not to what we said, but to what they wanted to believe we said.
I have been falsely identified as an enemy of feminism (not in so many words, but the intent is clear). My words have been misrepresented as sexist and misinterpreted beyond recognition. I find this particularly disturbing and hard to understand, because I’m convinced that my harshest critics and I are basically arguing for exactly the same things. I wish my critics could set aside their resentments and realize that I am not the enemy.
Two weeks ago I published an article on gender differences and the recent divisions in the skeptical community. Ophelia Benson showed up in the comments. Not unsurprisingly, she disagreed with me about the Shermer incident, but then she said “I like the rest of this article a lot. I particularly like the point about averages and individuals, which is one I make all the time.”
I took that as a hopeful sign that friendly communication might be achieved, but my bubble was quickly burst by a hostile takedown of my article on Skepchick by “Will.” His critique is demonstrably unfair. He attacks me for things I never said and tries to make it look like I believe the exact opposite of what I believe.
When a baby is born, the obstetrician or midwife announces “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl.” As toddlers, children learn to classify everyone as either boy or girl. When our firstborn was very young, we overheard her talking to herself as she grappled with the concept:
Let’s see… I’m a girl, and Kimberly [her baby sister] is a girl, and Mommy’s a girl… but Daddy’s not a girl… He’s a boy. [Pause followed by exasperated sigh] Cause he doesn’t know any better!
As with most things in science, the concept of boy versus girl is more complicated than it appears at first glance. It’s not a simple dichotomy. We humans like to classify everything into neat pigeonholes, but Nature’s inventiveness outsmarts us at every step.
Most reputable sources of nutrition information recommend a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in red meat. Vegans go much further. Strict vegans reject all animal products including fish, eggs, and milk. Some vegans come across like religious zealots. Here are some comments recently posted by vegans on Facebook:
- Right now the biggest social issue facing the world is the violence and suffering of animals.
- The dairy industry is the number one feminist issue facing our modern society.
- I expect within a generation that milk will be viewed as the most unhealthy habit after cigarettes. I bet it is responsible for more disease than anything else in the US. Dairy products promote all stages of cancer. [In fact, low fat dairy can be protective against some types of cancer]
- Milk contains blood and puss[sic]
- Humans are not omnivores; they are herbivores. [Most biologists would disagree.]
I was even told that that anyone who really cares about the welfare of others must promote veganism. It seems I am an evil, uncaring person if I waste my time writing about any other subject.
Vegans offer some good arguments based on ethics, environmental protection, cruelty to animals, and sustainability. I won’t get into those issues here. I’ll only address the scientific evidence behind the health claims. How does this description of a video strike you?:
Death in America is largely a foodborne illness. Focusing on studies published just over the last year in peer-reviewed scientific medical journals, [Hardly any of the studies he cites were published over the last year.] Michael Greger, M.D., offers practical advice on how best to feed ourselves and our families to prevent, treat, and even reverse many of the top 15 killers in the United States.[emphasis added] (more…)
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…)
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…)
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.