There has been a flurry of news relevant to science-based medicine in the last week – more than enough to keep a bevy of bloggers busy. More important than the individual news items themselves is the striking pattern they bring into focus when viewed together – the growing and pernicious double-standard between mainstream medicine and so-called CAM.
Begley vs Doctors
Science editor Sharon Begley wrote an interesting piece in Newsweek with the provocative title: Why Doctors Hate Science. I was not particularly impressed with the article – it took a rather narrow approach to a complex problem and ran with it. She writes:
It’s hard not to scream when you see how many physicians, pharmaceutical companies, medical-device makers and, lately, hysterical conservatives seem to hate science, or at best ignore it. These days the science that inspires fear and loathing is “comparative-effectiveness research” (CER), which is receiving $1 billion under the stimulus bill President Obama signed. CER means studies to determine which treatments, including drugs, are more medically and cost-effective for a given ailment than others.
I’m a big fan of video games, puzzles, and brain teasers. So the notion that so-called “brain training” games can help improve mental function and stave off dementia has some appeal to me. It also makes a certain amount of sense – exercise your brain and its function will improve.
And yet, as a skeptic, I have always been bothered by the specific claims made by marketers of games, websites, devices and programs. The formula is probably familiar to you, a specifically designed program is optimized to stimulate brain function, improve integration of information, and improve global function.
The website promotion for Brain Age, for example, claims:
Everyone knows you can prevent muscle loss with exercise, and use such activities to improve your body over time. And the same could be said for your brain. The design of Brain Age is based on the premise that cognitive exercise can improve blood flow to the brain. All it takes is as little as a few minutes of play time a day. For everyone who spends all their play time at the gym working out the major muscle groups, don’t forget – your brain is like a muscle, too. And it craves exercise.
The blood flow argument is pure hand-waving. The muscle analogy is perhaps more apt than intended – do muscles respond to a specific exercise or to any exercise?
In 2001 George Bush signed an executive order banning federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, except for those lines that were already established. As a result such research ground to a halt in the US.
While the order was presented as a compromise, the effect was chilling in its application. No researcher receiving federal dollars (even for a separate project) could do embryonic stem cell research, except on the approved lines. Institutions could not risk losing federal grants and so had to purge themselves of any banned research. The approved lines did not turn out to be as useful as was originally claims, and they became progressively obsolete as new techniques were being developed through state and private funding.
It is impossible to measure the effect that Bush’s ban had on ultimate scientific progress in this area. It is not just that we lost eight years – expertise in a cutting-edge scientific area can be a tenuous cultural and institutional thread, once broken it is difficult to recreate.
We will hopefully have a chance to find out. It was expected that one of the first measures of the Obama administration would be to lift the federal ban. In fact, I am a bit surprised it has not happened already. But it seems it soon will – insiders are saying that Obama plans to lift the ban soon.
Perhaps one of the most common questions I receive from those who wish to utilize science-based medicine for their own health is what I think about vitamins. Even among hard-nosed skeptics, this question is often perplexing. On the one hand, vitamins themselves were discovered by medical and biological science, they play a vital role (by definition) in the healthy functioning of our bodies, and deficiencies of vitamins can cause disease. So they seem perfectly legitimate. On the other hand the market is full of exaggerated and even magical claims about the cure-all power of vitamins.
It’s difficult for people to come to a bottom-line conclusion – should they take vitamin supplements or not. Is it woo or not woo?
Well – it’s complicated. But there is large body of research to help inform our decisions about vitamins. Now, the largest study to date has been published (Multivitamin Use and Risk of Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease in the Women’s Health Initiative Cohorts) looking at 161,808 post-menopausal women over 8 years and finding no benefit for heart disease, cancer risk, or overall survival. This study comes on the heels of other recent studies showing no benefit from routine supplementation.
There is a recent trend in UK Universities to close programs offering science degrees for various forms of so-called alternative medicine (CAM), such as homeopathy, crystal healing, and traditional Chinese medicine. This occurs amid growing scientific criticism of these programs.
This is a very good thing, and something I would like to see replicated in the US. The scientific community is appropriately concerned about such programs for a number of reasons. We have also been highly critical of them here at SBM – for example take a look as Wallace Sampson’s excellent analysis of academic medicine here and here, and David Gorski’s summary of Medical Academic Woo here.
Academic institutions have an implied contract with society – they are given resources (donations, scholarships), power (the ability to grant recognized degrees), and respect (the institutions and their members are often given the assumption of credibility and knowledge), and in exchange they agree to follow a code of professional ethics. This contract is similar to many professions, like physicians or lawyers.
The more recent issue of the Journal Pediatrics contains two article providing further evidence for the safety of vaccines and is published amid news reports of recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in those who chose not to vaccinate over unwarranted fears. This highlights the need to continue our PR battle against the antivaccinationist movement that seeks to spread pseudoscientific fears about vaccine safety.
Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib) is a bacteria that can cause meningitis, pneumonia, and epiglotitis in young children – all serious illnesses. A Hib vaccine was introduced in 1992 followed by a significant decrease in the number of Hib infections. Last year in Minnesota, however, there were five cases of Hib meningitis, including a 7-month old infant who died. This is a significant spike above the rate we have seen since the Hib vaccine, and occuring in a cluster. Three of the five children who were affected did not have the Hib vaccine by their parent’s choice.
As part of President Obama’s new approach to politics, with the promise of making it more transparent, his transition team solicited ideas from the public at change.gov. On this site anyone could post an idea and everyone could vote proposals up or down. Apparently the most popular ideas will be given some consideration. It’s an interesting blend of democracy and representative government. Whether is has any utility remains to be seen – but it’s just electrons and therefore it’s easy to experiment.
There are numerous suggestions under the health care category, but one in particular that might be of interest to readers of this blog. The author, Professor S, sent me the link to his suggestion that the new Administration defund the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).
What a great idea.
It is without controversy that the number of autism diagnoses being made is on the rise. In 1991 there were about 6 cases per 10,000 births, and in 2001 there were about 42. This number continues to rise at about the same rate.
The cause of this rise, however, is very controversial. There are basically two schools of thought: 1 – that true autism rates are on the rise, and 2 – that the measured rise is an artifact of increased surveillance and a broadening of the definition. I wrote previously about this very controversy, in which I concluded that the expanded diagnosis hypothesis is much better supported by the evidence.
Now, a new study published last week in the journal Epidemiology is being presented by proponents of the epidemic hypothesis as support for their view. A closer look, however, reveals that this study does not support the epidemic hypothesis and adds little to the overall literature on this question.
Dr. Robert Sears, son of the perhaps more famous Dr. William Sears (both pediatricians), has continued his father’s work of publishing popular books for parents. He wrote The Vaccine Book: Making the right decision for your child, published in October 2007. In it he advocates his Dr. Bob’s Alternative Vaccine Schedule. Much of his claims made in the book are repeated on his Ask Dr. Sears website.
In the latest issue of Pediatrics, Paul Offit, along with Charlotte Moser, write a detailed analysis of Dr. Bob’s alternative vaccine schedule, systematically reviewing Dr. Sears’ claims. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the popular vaccine controversy. Paul Offit also recently published his own book, Autism’s False Prophets, in which he goes into great detail about the history and science behind the claims by anti-vaccination advocates of the risks of vaccines, most famously the claim that vaccines are linked to autism.
Dr. Sears does not come off as a hard core anti-vaccinationist. I am still trying to figure out his perspective from reading his articles. It seems as if he is trying to be popular by straddling the fence, and offering what he thinks might be a reasonable compromise. For example, he writes on his site:
The bottom line is that more and more parents want options. If we don’t provide them with options they are comfortable with, more parents will opt out of vaccines altogether. We will then see more and more disease fatalities and complications.
Unfortunately, this is like trying to compromise between mutually exclusive positions, like young-earth creationism and evolution. It doesn’t work. Dr. Sears is left giving his readers, who will likely be comprised of many parents trying to decide whether or not to vaccinate their children, with partial information or misinformation. Offit and Moser do a great job of exposing this deception through misinformation.
I am pleased to announce that Science-Based Medicine is a finalist for a 2008 Medical Weblog Award in the New Medical Blog category. You can see all the categories and finalists here: http://www.medgadget.com/archives/2009/01/the_2008_medical_weblog_awards_the_polls_are_open.html
Of note, our blogging friend, Orac, is also a finalist for Respectful Insolence in the health policies/ethics category, along with our own Dr. Val Jones for her excellent blog, Better Health.
We would appreciate you taking a look and voting for the blog of your choice. And thanks to all of our readers for your kind support over our first year, and the active and informative discussions in the comments section. We look forward to more SBM in 2009.