Michael Specter is a good science journalist. I particularly enjoyed his book, Denialism. In a recent New Yorker article he tackles the difficult question of the placebo effect in modern medicine. While he does a fair job of hitting upon the key points of this question, I think he missed some important aspects of this question and allowed the views of Ted Kaptchuk to overly influence the framing of the article. Specter fell for the typical journalist trap — frame the article around a charismatic “maverick”, complete with compelling anecdotes, bury the meat of legitimate skepticism deep in the article, but then bring it all back to the maverick in the end. Be sure to tell us how this is going to change everything. This is good story telling, but very problematic as science journalism.
Kaptchuk himself is an interesting character. He is heading Harvard’s Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter. He has produced some good science on the placebo effect, but does not seem to want to draw the appropriate lessons from that research, and passes his bias on to Specter. From the article the quotes from Kaptchuk that most strike me are those about his personal experience with placebo medicine. Specter reports:
“There was no fucking way needles or herbs did anything for that woman’s ovaries,” he told me, still looking mystiﬁed, thirty-ﬁve years later. “It had to be some kind of placebo, but I had never given the idea of a placebo effect much attention. I had great respect for shamans—and I still do. I have always believed there is an important component of medicine that involves suggestion, ritual, and belief—all ideas that make scientists scream. Still, I asked myself, Could I have cured her? How? I mean, what could possibly have been the mechanism?”
Four months ago David Gorski wrote about the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s (CPSO) draft policy on “non-allopathic” medicine. He pointed out:
It’s obvious from the wishy-washy approach to the scientific basis of medicine, the waffle words when it comes to whether an “allopathic” physician should support “non-allopathic” therapies, and the apparently inadvertent use of language favored by quacks that there were far too many “alternative” practitioners involved in drafting this policy.
I agree. The proposed policy addresses the issue of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and has drawn serious criticism from Canadian physicians (at least those who are paying attention and have the slightest clue about what is going on). The backlash is good to see, but it is not nearly vigorous enough.
There is now an update to this story as the CPSO has published a revised policy proposal. There are some improvements, based on the criticism, but still there are problems with the policy.
Prince Charles is a big supporter of “natural” medicine, which in practice means unscientific and ineffective medicine. He has no particular expertise in this area, and there is absolutely no legitimate reason why he should have any influence over the practice of medicine in the UK. But he is the Prince of Wales, and he has chosen to use that celebrity to promote CAM.
Prince Charles has also recently been criticized for his credulous support for medical nonsense. The Telegraph recently reported that Simon Singh, co-author with Edzard Ernst of Trick or Treatment, and exposer of CAM pseudoscience, spoke about Prince Charles at the recent Hay Festival in India. Singh had some sharp criticism, including:
He only wants scientific evidence if it backs up his view of the natural treatment of health conditions…
We presented evidence that disputes the value of alternative medicine and despite this he hasn’t changed his mind…
Chiropractic is a diverse collection of beliefs and practices occurring under a broad regulatory label. The differences among various chiropractics are so stark that it is difficult to make general statements about chiropractic practice. At one end of the spectrum, however, are so-called “straight” chiropractors who adhere to the original philosophy of D.D. Palmer – that a vital force they call innate intelligence is response for health, and blockages in the flow of this magical force through the nerves are what cause illness. Such chiropractors believe they can influence non-neuromuscular conditions by restoring the flow of innate blocked by mysterious “subluxations” in the spine.
From chiropractors.org we have this definition of “straight” chiropractors:
Because straight chiropractors believe that nearly all diseases are caused by issues with the spine, they don’t believe they need any diagnostic tools. Traditional testing done by medical doctors and hospitals is not even considered by a straight chiropractor as being necessary. Diagnosis is done by finding the subluxations in the spine so that those can be corrected.
This particular version of chiropractic (by some estimates about a third of chiropractors follow this philosophy) is pure pseudoscience. It is, as indicated by the quote above, hostile to science-based medicine. After a century of such belief there isn’t a bit of evidence to support the notion of innate intelligence, chiropractic subluxations, or health benefits from this approach.
Scientific medicine is not easy. By this point we have largely picked the low hanging fruit, and continued improvements are mostly incremental and hard won. In order to get the most out of our limited research dollars, and optimize medical practice with the safest and most effective treatments, we need to use all available scientific evidence in the proper way. That is the essence of SBM.
There are those, however, that misuse or abuse the scientific evidence — whether to promote an ideology, out of innocent ignorance, or for nefarious purposes. In order to be truly science-based a medical intervention should be plausible, or at least not implausible, based upon basic science evidence, and it should actually be safe and effective when tested in people. Therefore, medical practices can fail to be scientific for one of two broad reasons: they can be scientifically implausible, or they can lack proper clinical evidence for safety and efficacy (or even have evidence for lack of efficacy). Some modalities (like homeopathy) fail on both counts.
The more pernicious medical claims are those that seem highly plausible, that can be extrapolated from basic science, but simply lack adequate clinical evidence. Stem cell clinics are an example — they can easily dazzle desperate patients with scientific descriptions of how stem cells work, and even cite published basic-science papers showing the potential of this technology. But what they cannot do is provide clinical evidence that the specific intervention they are offering is safe and effective for the specific disease or condition they are treating.
There is an endless stream of supplement products on the market that are of questionable value. They tend to follow a similar pattern: put an essentially random assortment of vitamins, minerals, perhaps herbs and nutritional elements into a pill and then make whatever pseudo-health claims you want. Usually the claim is implied in the name of the product itself – sleepwell, or brainboost. The popular product Airborne fits this mold. It is essentially a multivitamin with the unfounded claim that it will prevent infection by boosting the immune system.
In the US, regulations (under DSHEA) specifically allow “structure/function” claims without any requirement for evidence to back up the claims. In other words, as long as you don’t mention a disease by name, you can make pretty much whatever claim you want. This was supposed to be good for the consumer, when in fact it is springtime for industry at the expense of the consumer. If your claims are outrageous enough the FTC can still go after you, but they are playing a game of whack-a-mole and losing.
Another pattern that is common is for a supplement product to contain specific components that are claimed to have specific benefits. Often these claims are based upon evidence – just the wrong kind of evidence. Basic science evidence is used inappropriately to support clinical claims. This strategy is more insidious, as it gives the public the sense that the product is science-based when it isn’t.
Reiki (pronounced raykey) is a form of “energy healing,” essentially the Asian version of faith healing or laying on of hands. Practitioners believe they are transferring life energy to the patient, increasing their well-being. The practice is popular among nurses, and in fact is practiced by nurses at my own institution (Yale).
From reiki.org, we get this description:
Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It is administered by “laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy.
Reiki is therefore a form of vitalism – the pre-scientific belief that some spiritual energy animates the living, and is what separates living things from non-living things. The notion of vitalism was always an intellectual place-holder, responsible for whatever aspects of biology were not currently understood. But as science progressed, eventually we figured out all of the basic functions of life and there was simply nothing left for the vital force to do. It therefore faded from scientific thinking. We can add to that the fact that no one has been able to provide positive evidence for the existence of a vital force – it remains entirely unknown to science.
The discovery of various vitamins – essential micronutrients that cause disease when deficient – was one of the great advances of modern scientific medicine. This knowledge also led to several highly successful public health campaigns, such as vitamin-D supplementation to prevent rickets.
Today vitamins have a deserved reputation for being an important part of overall health. However, their reputation has gone beyond the science and taken on almost mythical proportions. Perhaps it is due to aggressive marketing from the supplement industry, perhaps recent generations have grown up being told by their parents thousands of times how important it is to take their vitamins, or eat vitamin-rich food. Culture also plays a role – Popeye eating spinach to make himself super strong is an example this pervasive message.
Regardless of the cause, the general feeling is that vitamins are all good – they are not only important for health, they promote health. Many people take vitamin supplements on the idea that more is better, or for nutritional “insurance” to make sure they are getting enough of every vitamin.
While we frequently on SBM target the worst abuses of science in medicine, it’s important to recognize that doing rigorous science is complex and mainstream scientists often fall short of the ideal. In fact, one of the advantages of exploring pseudoscience in medicine is developing a sensitive detector for errors in logic, method, and analysis. Many of the errors we point out in so-called “alternative” medicine also crop up elsewhere in medicine – although usually to a much less degree.
It is not uncommon, for example, for a paper to fail to adjust for multiple analysis – if you compare many variables you have to take that into consideration when doing the statistical analysis otherwise the probability of a chance correlation will be increased.
I discussed just yesterday on NeuroLogica the misapplication of meta-analysis – in this case to the question of whether or not CCSVI correlates with multiple sclerosis. I find this very common in the literature, essentially a failure to appreciate the limits of this particular analysis tool.
Another example comes recently from the journal Nature Neuroscience (an article I learned about from Ben Goldacre over at the Bad Science blog). Erroneous analyses of interactions in neuroscience: a problem of significance investigates the frequency of a subtle but important statistical error in high profile neuroscience journals.
Determining the net health effects of independent factors can be tricky, especially when those factors cannot be controlled for in experimental studies. For things like body mass index (BMI) we must rely on observational data and triangulate with multiple studies to isolate the contributions from BMI. But it can be done.
The data, however, are likely to be complex and noisy, and therefore there is plenty of opportunity for ideology to trump objectivity in interpreting the data. There are those who, for whatever reason, deny that we are having an obesity epidemic in the West, and those who deny the health implications of being overweight as an independent factor.
The terms overweight and obesity have had various definitions in the past, but in recent years the various health organizations have settled on consensus operational definitions (for obvious practical reasons). Their definition relates to body mass index, which is a person’s weight in kilograms (kg) divided by their height in meters (m) squared.