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Placebo is not what you think it is

If I read one more crappy article about placebos, something’s gotta give, and it’s gonna be my head or my desk. Wired magazine has a new article entitled, “Placebos Are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why.” Frequent readers of skeptical and medical blogs will spot the first problem: the insanely nonsensical claim that “placebos are getting better”. This not only “begs the question,” but actually betrays a fundamental misapprehension of the concept. I’ve written several times about the nature and ethical implications of placebos, but it’s time for a serious smackdown. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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If you’re sick, even the ridiculous can seem sublime

Let’s say you have cancer. And let’s say you’re really, really sick of having cancer. And let’s say that you’re also pretty tired of scans, chemo, radiation, hair loss, nausea. And let’s say you’re not really sick and tired of living, but actually pretty happy to be alive.

Finally, let’s say someone says that they can get rid of your cancer, without all of those pesky side-effects. It’s a win-win, no?

No.

It’s easy to believe in promises that are congruent with our wishes. That’s what makes human beings so easy to deceive. A case in point is the VIBE Machine, a discredited quackery device. This thing was marketed until about a year ago. Not surprisingly, Orac has written about this thing in his Friday Dose of Woo. Stephen Barrett, the King of Quack-Busters, has also tracked the sordid history of this rip-off. The device was recalled back in 2008, so this shouldn’t even be a story anymore, except that word of the device still circulates among cancer patients and their friends. The company’s website is down, which is good, but this thing is still out there.

At least one website is still promoting it in detail. The website is, needless to say, a whole lot of words that make no sense: (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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Health care reform and primary sources

One thing I always encourage my residents and students to do is to go to primary sources.  If someone tells you that thiazide diruetics should be the first line treatment for hypertension, get on MedLine and see if that assertion is congruent with the evidence.  It’s important to see how we arrive at broad treatment recommendations, how strong and consistent the evidence is, and the best way to do this is go back to the beginning.

This is not an explicitly political blog, and for that reason, I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to advocate for one or another proposed health care reform plan.  But I do want to encourage everyone to follow health care reform closely, and to go to the primary sources. Certain aspects of the proposed bill will be hard for any of us to understand, especially cost.  There are all sorts of wild claims about how much reform will save us or cost us, and I’m betting that none of these claims is completely congruent with the truth.  But some of  what we’re hearing on the news is so far from the truth that to call them lies would be generous. (more…)

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Magic diet? Not so much

Alternative medicine practitioners love to coin magic words, but really, how can you blame them? Real medicine has a Clarkeian quality to it*; it’s so successful, it seems like magic. But real doctors know that there is nothing magic about it. The “magic” is based on hard work, sound scientific principles, and years of study.

Magic words are great. Terms like mindfulness, functional medicine, or endocrine disruptors take a complicated problem and create a simple but false answer with no real data to back it up. More often than not, the magic word is the invention of a single person who had a really interesting idea, but lacked the intellectual capacity or honesty to flesh it out. Magic is, ultimately, a lie of sorts. As TAM 7 demonstrates, many magicians are skeptics, and vice versa. In interviews, magicians will often say that they came to skepticism when the learned just how easy it is to deceive people. Magic words in alternative medicine aren’t sleight-of-hand, but sleight-of-mind, playing on people’s hopes and fears.
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Posted in: Nutrition, Science and Medicine

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DSHEA: a travesty of a mockery of a sham

In 1994, Congress enacted the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). This act allows for the marketing and sales of “dietary supplements” with little or no regulation. This act is the work of folks like Tom Harkin (who took large contributions from Herbalife) and Orrin Hatch, whose state of Utah is home to many supplement companies.

DSHEA has a couple of very important consequences (aside from filling the pockets of supplement makers). (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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I get mail–chiroquacktic edition

A long while back, at the original wordpress incarnation of my usual blog, I wrote a piece on the reasons that chiropractic is unscientific nonsense. Because it was popular, I resurrected it. Well, a chiropractor has come to bravely defend his field and left me a comment.

A study in the May 2007 issue of the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics reports health plans that use Chiropractors as Primary Care Providers (PCPs) reduce their health care utilization costs significantly.

The study covers the seven-year period from 1999 to 2005. Researchers compared costs and utilization data from an Independent Physicians Association (IPA) that uses Chiropractors as PCPs and a traditional HMO that doesn’t.

The Chiropractic PCPs had 59 percent fewer hospitalizations, 62 percent fewer outpatient surgical cases and 85 percent lower drug costs compared with the HMO plans.

The patients in the Chiropractic PCP group also reported higher satisfaction with their care than the HMO group. Over the seven-year period, Chiropractic patients consistently demonstrated a high degree of satisfaction with their care that ranged from 89 percent to 100 percent.

Study co-author James Winterstein, D.C. says that patients using Chiropractic PCP health care groups “experienced fewer hospitalizations, underwent fewer surgeries and used considerably fewer pharmaceuticals than HMO patients who received traditional medical care.”

Hmmm…interesting assertions. Let’s examine these assertions and the “article” they come from. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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The death and rebirth of vitalism

One of the common themes in biology and medicine is the feeling that somehow there must be more. Creationist cults simply know that life must be more than matter, and mind-body dualists (which includes most alternative medicine advocates) are certain that humans are more than an “ugly bag of mostly water” (sorry for the geek reference). If you can stick with me here, I’ll explain to you a bit of the history surrounding this fallacy.

Most of us intuitively feel that we are both a body and a person. In every day life, it makes a certain operational sense to think of our “mind” as being something distinct. From a biological standpoint, however, this doesn’t work as well.

Biology was one of the last of the “natural philosophies” to become a science. It was clear to those who studied chemistry and physics that certain principles seemed to explain the natural world, but those who studied living things were mostly involved in description. Still, biology has become a science in its own right. According to Ernst Mayr, one of the greatest biologists of the last century, a number of events preceded biology being recognized as a legitimate science. One vital event was the recognition that all biological processes were constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry. Another important step was the rejection of two erroneous principles: vitalism, and teleology. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Science is hard, and best left to professionals (the same may be said for journalism)

It might seem a bit undemocratic, but science, like medicine or dentistry, is a profession. One doesn’t become a scientist by fiat but by education and training. I am not a scientist. I apply science. My colleague Dr. Gorski is a scientist (as well as physician). He understands in a way that I never will the practical process of science—funding, experimental design, statistics. While I can read and understand scientific studies in my field, I cannot design and run them (but I probably could in a limited way with some additional training). Even reading and understanding journal articles is difficult, and actually takes training (which can be terribly boring, but I sometimes teach it anyway).

So when I read a newspaper article about science or medicine, I usually end up disappointed—sometimes with the science, and sometimes with the reporting. A recent newspaper article made me weep for both. Local newspapers serve an important role in covering news in smaller communities, and are often jumping off points for young, talented journalists. Or sometimes, not so much.

The article was in the Darien (CT) Times. The headline reads, in part, “surveys refute national Lyme disease findings.” Epidemiologic studies, such as surveys, are very tricky. They require a firm grounding in statistics, among other things. You must know what kind of question to ask, how many people to ask, how to choose these people, etc, etc, etc. So what institution conducted this groundbreaking survey on Lyme disease?
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Posted in: Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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What is disease? Diabetes, diagnosis, and real science

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the concepts we often discuss around here is “what is disease?” As we’ve seen in the discussion of Lyme disease and so-called Morgellons syndrome, this is not always an easy question to answer. Knowing what states are disease states does not always yield a black-or-white answer. The first step is usually to define what a disease is. The next problem is to decide who in fact has that disease. The first question is hard enough, especially in disease states that we don’t understand too well. The second question can be equally tricky. To explore the scientific and philosophical issues of diagnosing an illness we will use as a model diabetes mellitus (DM). This won’t be quite as boring as you think, so don’t click away yet. (Most of the information here refers more specifically to type II diabetes, but most of it is valid for type I as well.) (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Define the disease first

My first post on this blog addressed the problem of what I have called “fake diseases” (a problem which needs a more neutral moniker). As I wrote at the time, people suffering from vague ailments are often twice victimized: the medical establishment cannot satisfy them, and quacks prey on them. There’s a certain sense of satisfaction and validation to having your symptoms clearly labeled. While it isn’t a good thing to have heart disease, no one tells you you’re not sick. Not so with people with more vague and protean symptoms. It’s human nature to want answers, to try to understand patterns, and when we, as physicians, cannot help someone understand their symptoms, they’re going to reach out to others for answers.

The Lyme disease community is like that. The internet has helped them to form communities and to share information. This whole idea of “chronic Lyme disease” (CLD) has become a way for people who don’t feel they have a medical home to come together. I understand that impulse. Any human being should be able to understand it.

But the other side of me, the analytic side, has a problem with it. No, not a problem with people supporting each other, but if you read these websites, message boards, etc., you can see a certain commonality—people aren’t getting any better. They are still suffering. Much of that suffering is blamed on a heartless medical community, and when they find a “Lyme literate” doctor, there is a huge sense of relief. But the symptoms often continue.

The very idea of CLD is not implausible (as opposed to Morgellons and other such fake diseases). Other spirochetes give us models for diseases with extended, multi-system effects, syphilis being the most studied. One of the key concepts in science-based medicine is plausibility, because, as Dr. Harriet Hall puts it, no matter how much you study the characteristics of the tooth fairly, you still haven’t proven her existence. But CLD certainly has a plausibility to it, and if an idea is plausible, then it is certainly worth studying and gathering evidence.
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