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Selective pressures on alternative medicine

QuackeryEvolution

(Editor’s note: I was away at Skepticon over the weekend, where I gave a talk entitled “The Central Dogma of Alternative Medicine”. (When the talk’s up on YouTube, I’ll provide a link, of course.) Because of all the fun and travel delays I didn’t get a chance to turn my slides and notes into a blog post yet. Also, I’m on vacation this week. However, this gives me the opportunity to resurrect a blog post from 2007 on my not-so-super-secret other blog, because I think the concept is interesting. I even use it in a slide that shows up in many of my talks (above). I’ve updated dead links and added some text to include relevant links to posts written since. Enjoy, and I’ll definitely be back next week with original material, if not sooner, given that there are others here who might have the temerity to take part or all of this week off.)

I wish I had thought of this one, but I didn’t. However, I never let a little thing like not having thought of an idea first to stop me from discussing it (even if Steve Novella’s also discussed it), and this particular idea is definitely worth expanding upon because (1) it’s interesting and (2) it combines two of my interests, alternative medicine and evolution. I agree with parts of the idea, but it’s not without its shortcomings. Indeed, I’d very much welcome any of the evolutionary biologists who read this blog to chime in with their own ideas.

A colleague of mine, Martin Rundkvist over at Aardvarchaeology, has proposed a rather fascinating idea regarding the evolution of alternative medicine in which he argues that alternative medicine evolves according to certain selective pressures. As you may or may not know, evolution is not just for biology, but has been proposed as a mechanism in cultural memes, for example. Since alternative medicine is a cultural phenomenon, it is not unreasonable to look at such non-evidence-based medicine and hypothesize what might be the selective pressures that shape its popularity and evolution. After all, if we’re going to discourage the use of non-evidence-based medicine or even quackery, it’s helpful to understand it. We already know that alt-med terminology has evolved considerably into the current preferred term, “integrative medicine.” (See also the image above and my blog posts on this evolution here and here.)
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Posted in: Basic Science, Evolution, Science and Medicine

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Conspiracy theories and Ebola virus transmission

Yesterday, I spiffed up a post that some of you might have seen, describing how a particular medical conspiracy theory has dire consequences in terms of promoting non-science-based medical policy. Specifically, I referred to how the myth that there are all sorts of “cures” for deadly and even terminal diseases that are being kept from you by an overweening fascistic FDA’s insistence on its approval process is an important driving force behind ill-advised “right to try” legislation that’s passed in four states and likely to pass in Arizona by referendum tomorrow. I’m not exaggerating, either. If you have the stomach to delve into the deeper, darker recesses of alternative medicine and conspiracy theory websites, you’ll find words far worse than that used to describe the FDA, such as this little gem from everyone’s favorite über-quack Mike Adams basically portraying the FDA as Adolf Hitler. Even more “mainstream” advocates, such as Reason.com’s Ronald Bailey and Nick Gillespie, are not above using a version of this myth stripped of the worst of its conspiracy mongering for public consumption, claiming that the FDA is killing you.

Unfortunately, this sort of medical conspiracy theory is very common. Like all conspiracy theories, medical conspiracy theories tend to involve “someone” hiding something from the public. I like to refer to this as the fallacy of “secret knowledge.” That “someone” hiding the “secret knowledge” is usually the government, big pharma, or other ill-defined nefarious forces. The “secret knowledge” being hidden comes invariably in one of two flavors. Either “they” are hiding cures for all sorts of diseases that conventional medicine can’t cure, or “they” are hiding evidence of harm due to something in medicine. Although examples of the former are common, such as the “hidden cure for cancer,” it is examples of the latter that seem to be even more common, in particular the myth that vaccines cause autism and all sorts of diseases and conditions, that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous, or that radiation from cell phones causes cancer. In these latter examples, invariably the motivation is either financial (big pharma profits), ideological (control, although descriptions of how hiding this knowledge results in control are often sketchy at best), or even some seriously out there claims, such as the sometimes invoked story about how mass vaccination programs are about “population control” or even “depopulation.” Either way, “The Truth” needs to be hidden from the population, lest they panic and revolt.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Public Health

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Placebo Speculations

From the Wikimedia Commons.

From the Wikimedia Commons.

 

I have a new term to add to the English language, ebolasmacked, a derivative of the British term gobsmacked. Ebolasmacked defines my life the last few weeks since Ebola, or at last preparations for Ebola, have taken a huge bite out of my time with many interesting twists and turns. I think this is maybe the 9th outbreak (HIV, MERS, SARS, Legionella, H1N1, Avian flu, West Nile, MRSA) of my career and it has certainly generated more hysteria relative to the risk than any to date. Many of my usual pastimes, like SBM (as this essay will no doubt demonstrate), have had to take a back seat to preparing for what should be a very unlikely, but very disruptive, event. We do not want to get caught with our hazmats down should a case of Ebola come through the door.

What makes life interesting, among other things, is the constant realization that the more you know the more there is to know. I like Richard Dawkins’ metaphor in Climbing Mount Improbable where he pictures scientific progress as a series of false summits extending into infinity. It sure seems that way. Every time I think I understand a topic, I find there is still more to learn.

My Dad told me when I graduated from medical school that half of everything I had just learned was probably not true, the only problem is that you didn’t know which half. It was partially true. There have been ideas that have been abandoned since I was an intern, the most famous being that ulcers were due to stress and diet. But a new paradigm has been the exception, not the rule.

The last thirty years have been more about refining knowledge about the complexity of disease and its treatment and, perhaps equally importantly, having a better understanding of the all slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that can make the results of a clinical trial suspect. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Science and Medicine

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Clinical trials of integrative medicine: testing whether magic works?

 

I just thought that I’d take the editor’s (and, speaking for Steve, the founder’s) prerogative to promote our own efforts. Regular readers of SBM are familiar with our message with respect to randomized clinical trials of highly implausible “complementary and alternative medicine” treatments, such as homeopathy or reiki. Well, believe it or not, Steve and I managed to get a commentary published in a very good journal in which we present the SBM viewpoint with respect to these trials. Even better, at least for now, you can read it too, because it doesn’t appear to be behind a paywall. (I’m at home as I write this, and I can read the whole thing on my wifi, no VPN needed.)

The article is entitled “Clinical trials of integrative medicine: testing whether magic works?” There’s also been a fair amount of news coverage on the article, and I’ve been frantically doing interviews over the last couple of days, including:

There are likely to be at least a couple more, given the interviews I’ve done; that is, unless editors reject the ideas.

In any case, Steve and I are interested in your comments. Trends in Molecular Medicine is good in that it published our article and it’s a pretty high impact review journal, but it doesn’t have a section for comments. So consider this your section for comments on our article.

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy

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Cold reality versus the wishful thinking of cryonics

We all seek immortality in some way. Death has been one of the prime terrors haunting us since humans first started realizing that every living thing dies and death is permanent. After all, no one wants to face the end of everything that one has been, is, and will be. Indeed, a key feature of many religions is a belief that death is not the end, that there is an afterlife where we will all live forever. In some religions, in the afterlife evil is punished and good rewarded. Even if, as seems most likely, death is simply the end, and the time after death is just like the time before we were born (or, more properly, before our first memories), something that seems relatively benign just thinking about it, emotionally we still don’t want it. Being human, I get it, particularly now that I’m on the wrong side of 50 and, unless I’m far more long-lived than my genes are likely to permit, have considerably less life to look forward to than the lifetime I’ve already lived. I also realize that the number of people who are remembered long after they are gone by anyone outside of their family and friends is exceedingly small—and even that memory fades rapidly among family members. As the succeeding generation dies off, direct memory of the generation that spawned it disappears. I get it. Fifty years from now, it’s likely that all that will remain of my existence will be some scientific papers and a faint memory held by my nieces and nephews and maybe, if I’m lucky, a few of my youngest readers.

I don’t, however, get cryonics.

Detroit, like many large cities, has a free weekly “alternative” newspaper, The Metro Times. This week’s issue features this cover:

MetroCryonic

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Posted in: Basic Science, Science and the Media

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Why People Continue to use SCAMs

Rodin's The Thinker
I remain curious as to why people use, and continue to use, useless pseudo-medicines. I read the literature, but I find the papers unsatisfactory. They seem incomplete, and I suspect there are as many reasons people choose a pseudo-medicine as those use them.

There are numerous surveys on what SCAMs people use. Designing and offering these surveys to every possible medical condition is a growth industry: the old, the young, cancer patients, AIDS patients. All need be asked which SCAM they use. It seems to be a ready way to get a quick entry in your CV, but which SCAM is used does not speak to the why a particular SCAM is being used. Why try acupunctures, say, instead of reflexology?

There are numerous reasons suggested for why people partake of SCAMS as a general concept: dissatisfaction with standard medical care is a common one but is not always supported in the literature. Gullibility, ignorance, and stupidity are often credited, none of them are particularly valid. Dr. Novella covered the topic in 2012. There is some data to suggest that which SCAM and why is a moving target, changing over time. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Critical Thinking

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Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine research conference disappoints even NCCAM

From the Wikimedia Commons, originally posted by Flickr user Alex E. Proimos (link)

From the Wikimedia Commons, originally posted by Flickr user Alex E. Proimos (link)

In May, the International Research Congress on Integrative Medicine and Health (IRCIMH) conference was held in Miami. In the words of its website, the conference was “convened by” the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine (CAHCIM), “in association with” the International Society for Complementary Medicine Research. As CAHCIM chirped in this tweet: “Three days, 22 countries, 100 academic medical institutions, [and] 900 researchers, physicians, educators, and trainees…” Interestingly, despite the fact that “use of all appropriate … healthcare professionals and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing” is part of CAHCIM’s definition of integrative medicine, actual CAM providers were barely visible among the conference committee bigwigs.

Emmeline Edwards, Ph.D., Director, Division of Extramural Research at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), herself on the conference’s Program Committee, was decidedly underwhelmed. (NCCAM helped fund the conference. Additional funding information here.) After offering rather tepid congratulations to the organizers and participants, Dr. Edwards launched into a pointed, but very politely delivered, criticism of the research presented (emphasis mine):

The poster sessions offered a great opportunity to meet many new investigators engaged in exciting research in the field of integrative health. Reflecting on some highlights of these sessions, I was brought to the realization that we could strive for better balance in the science featured in the IRCIMH poster presentations. The clinical research posters outnumbered the basic research presentations 3:1, and research on mind and body strategies dominated the research landscape. One concern is that many clinical research projects were not developed from adequate mechanistic studies and, hence, the outcomes from these projects may not be very informative, provide a well-defined path for the next study, or give direction for future research programs.

How right you are, Dr. Edwards! We’ve been saying some of the same things here at SBM for years. We’ve noticed these very same problems in the organization you work for. Recently, as a matter of fact. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Ketogenic diet does not “beat chemo for almost all cancers”

One of the difficult things about science-based medicine is determining what is and isn’t quackery. While it is quite obvious that modalities such as homeopathy, acupuncture, reflexology, craniosacral therapy, Hulda Clark’s “zapper,” the Gerson therapy and Gonzalez protocol for cancer, and reiki (not to mention every other “energy healing” therapy) are the rankest quackery, there are lots of treatments that are harder to classify. Much of the time, these treatments that seemingly fall into a “gray area” are treatments that have shown promise in animals but have never been tested rigorously in humans or are based on scientific principles that sound reasonable but, again, have never been tested rigorously in humans. (Are you sensing a pattern here yet?) Often these therapies are promoted by true believers whose enthusiasm greatly outstrips the evidence base for their preferred treatment. Lately, I’ve been seeing just such a therapy being promoted around the usual social media sources, such as Facebook, Twitter, and the like. I’ve been meaning to write about it for a bit, but, as is so often the case with my Dug the Dog nature—squirrel!—other topics caught my attention.

I’m referring to a diet called the ketogenic diet, and an article that’s been making the rounds since last week entitled “Ketogenic diet beats chemo for almost all cancers, says Dr. Thomas Seyfried.” Of course, when I see a claim such as that, my first reaction is, “Show me the evidence.” My second reaction is, “Who is this guy?” Well, Dr. Seyfried is a professor of biology at Boston College, who’s pretty well published. He’s also working in a field that has gained new respectability over the last five to ten years, namely cancer metabolism, mainly thanks to a rediscovery of what Otto Warburg discovered over 80 years ago. What Warburg discovered was that many tumors rely on glycolysis for their energy even in environments with adequate oxygen for oxidative phosphorylation, which generates the bulk of the chemical energy used by cells. I described this phenomenon in more detail in a post I did four years ago about a drug that looks as though its anticancer properties come from its ability to reverse the Warburg effect. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Precision Medicine: The Coolest Part of Medicine

QuellosOne size rarely fits all. Most medical knowledge is derived from studying groups of subjects, subjects who may be different in some way from the individual who walks into the doctor’s office. Basing medicine only on randomized controlled studies can lead to over-simplified “cookbook” medicine. A good clinician interprets study results and puts them into context, considering the whole patient and using clinical judgment to apply current scientific knowledge appropriately to the individual.

CAM practitioners claim to be providing individualized treatments. Homeopaths look up symptoms like “dreams of robbers,” “sensation of coldness in the heart,” and “chills between 9 and 11 AM” in their books, and naturopaths quiz patients in great depth about their habits and preferences; but they don’t have a plausible rationale for interpreting the information they gather. And they have not been able to demonstrate better patient outcomes from using that information.

A new concept, “precision medicine,” was recently featured in UW Medicine, the alumni magazine of my alma mater, the University of Washington School of Medicine. Precision medicine strives to provide truly individualized care based on good science. It identifies the individual variations in people that make a difference in our ability to diagnose and treat accurately. Peter Byers, MD, director of the new Center for Precision Diagnostics at the University of Washington, calls it “the coolest part of medicine.” (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures

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More Dialogs

There is no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking. JAMA

Just just because there are flaws in aircraft design that doesn’t mean flying carpets exist. Ben Goldacre

Wiser heads than I have commented on “Invitation to a Dialogue: Alternative Therapies” in The New York Times. So why add my two cents? Partly because The New York Times wanted brief responses and I don’t do brief. Partly because I write for me; nothing focuses the mind like putting electrons to LCD, except, perhaps, a hanging. Partly we do need a dialog, just not of the kind suggested by the writer. And partly, life has been so busy of late I needed a topic that required no research. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Critical Thinking, Science and Medicine

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