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The Application of Science

It all seemed so easy

In 2010 an article was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Preventing Surgical-Site Infections in Nasal Carriers of Staphylococcus aureus .  Patients were screened for Staphylcoccus aureus ( including MRSA, methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and those that were positive underwent a 5 day perioperative decontamination procedure with chlorhexidine baths and an antibiotic, mupirocin, in the nose.  The results were impressive.  Before the intervention the infection rates were 7.7 % and after the intervention it was 3.4 %.  That is an impressive drop in surgical infections.

One of the orthopedic groups approached us (us being the hospital administration, pharmacy, nursing  and infection control, of which I am Chair) to implement the protocol in their patients, citing a similar study on an orthopedic population.  Great.  It should be an easy enough intervention.  I should have known better, of course, long experience has continually demonstrated that what appears to be simple never is.

First was the question as to whether the study was applicable to our patients.  Resources were going to be devoted to an intervention, so going forward we had to demonstrate that the bang would be worth the buck.  These are financially lean times, with cutbacks and declining reimbursement, so every expenditure of time and money needs to be justified.  In the bizarro accounting of health care, not every hospital administration will include money saved in the evaluation of interventions, only the money spent.   I work in a hospital system with a remarkably strong commitment to patient safety and quality, so there was little  worry on that point. (more…)

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

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Help a reader out: Abstracts that misrepresent the content of the paper

Earlier this week, a reader of ours wrote to Steve and me with a request:

First off, I just want to say thank you for everything you gentlemen do. I find that your sites are extremely helpful when trying to figure out what level of information is BS, and what is real.

In short, I was wondering if either of you two would be able to refer me to a scientific or psuedo-scientific article where the abstract completely misrepresents the article or the conclusion doesn’t fit the analysis/data. The reason is that I’m writing is that I’m currently in my third year at [REDACTED], and currently I’m working on my seminar paper so I can graduate. I decided to look at whether there is a reasonable fair use argument in the reproduction of an entire scientific article and at what instances prior precedent would allow it. Inherent in the argument is that a scientific paper can’t be properly excerpted without losing vital information (or that an abstract does not adequately describe the entire paper), so complete reproduction of the article is necessary to properly convey the point.

Sincerely,

A Reader

So…at the risk of being too blatant, I’ll just say that our readers are very informed and scientifically knowledgeable (excepting the odd troll, of course). Can you help another reader out and provide references that fit this reader’s request? I can think of one, but I don’t think it’s as blatant as what he has in mind. Please list your references below. Heck, we might even be able to get a post for SBM out of this if there are some interesting papers that fit the description above.

Posted in: Basic Science, Medical Academia

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Is gluten the new Candida?

Much of the therapeutics I was taught as part of my pharmacy degree is now of historical interest only. New evidence emerges, and clinical practice change. New treatments replace old ones – sometimes because they’re demonstrably better, and sometimes because marketing trumps evidence. The same changes occurs in the over-the-counter section of the pharmacy, but it’s here marketing seems to completely dominate. There continues to be no lack of interest in vitamin supplements, despite a growing body of evidence that suggests either no benefit, or possible harm, with many products. Yet it’s the perception that these products are beneficial seem to be seem to continue to drive sales. Nowhere is this more apparent than in areas where it’s felt medical needs are not being met. I covered one aspect a few weeks ago in a post on IgG food intolerance blood tests which are clinically useless but sold widely. The diagnosis of celiac disease came up in the comments, which merits a more thorough discussion: particularly, the growing fears over gluten consumption. It reminds me of another dietary fad that seems to have peaked and faded: the fear of Candida.

It wasn’t until I left pharmacy school and started speaking with real patients that I learned we are all filled with Candida – yeast. Most chronic diseases could be traced back to candida, I was told. And it wasn’t just the customers who believed it. One particular pharmacy sold several different kits that purported to eliminate yeast in the body. But these didn’t contain antifungal drugs – most were combinations of laxative and purgatives, combined with psyllium and bentonite clay, all promising to sponge up toxins and candida and restore you to an Enhanced State of Wellness™. There was a strict diet to be followed, too: No sugar, no bread – anything it was thought the yeast would consume. While you can still find these kits for sale, the enthusiasm for them seems to have waned. Whether consumers have caught on that these kits are useless, or have abandoned them because they don’t actually treat any underlying medical issues, isn’t clear.

The trend (which admittedly is hard to quantify) seems to have shifted, now that there’s a new dietary orthodoxy to question. Yeast is out. The real enemy is gluten: consume it at your own risk. There’s a growing demand for gluten labeling, and food producers are bringing out an expanding array of gluten-free (GF) foods. This is fantastic news for those with celiac disease, an immune reaction to gluten, where total gluten avoidance is essential. Only in the past decade or so has the true prevalence of celiac disease has become clear: about 1 in 100 have the disease. With the more frequent diagnosis of celiac disease, the awareness of gluten, and the harm it can cause to some, has soared. But going gluten free isn’t just for those with celiac disease. Tennis star Novak Djokovic doesn’t have celiac disease, but went on a GF diet. Headlines like “Djokovic switched to gluten-free diet, now he’s unstoppable on court” followed. Among children, there’s the pervasive but unfounded linkage of gluten consumption with autism, popularized by Jenny McCarthy and others. Even in the absence of any undesirable symptoms, gluten is being perceived as something to be avoided. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Nutrition, Science and Medicine

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SANE Vax adopts Dr. Hanan Polansky’s “microcompetition” as its own. Hilarity ensues.

One of the hallmarks of science as it has been practiced for the last century or so is that scientists share their discoveries in the peer-reviewed literature, where their fellow scientists can evaluate them, decide if they’re interesting, and then replicate them, usually as a prelude to building upon them. While the system of publication and peer review in science is anything but perfect (and, indeed, we have discussed many of its shortcomings right here on this very blog), I tend to like to view it in much the same way Winston Churchill characterized democracy:

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

I would rephrase this as:

Many forms of evaluating science have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that peer review is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said (by me) that peer review is the worst form of evaluating science except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

As mainstream medicine has become more scientific over the last century in the wake of the Flexner Report, physicians and medical researchers have similarly come to view publication in the peer-reviewed literature to be a very important component of communicating and evaluating medical discoveries. It’s not as though this is even a particularly high bar to pass, either. After all, many are the absolutely execrable papers that I (and my partners in crime here at SBM) have discussed over the last four years, nearly all of which were in peer-reviewed journals, some very prestigious. After all, if papers on “energy chelation” can find their way into decent journals and the likes of Mark and David Geier can publish in the peer-reviewed literature, while someone like Christopher Shaw can get cringe-worthy confusions of correlation with causation published, I don’t take seriously the whines of cranks who claim that they can’t publish in the peer-reviewed literature for one reason or another.

That’s why I view being published in the peer-reviewed literature as a minimum, but by no means sufficient, requirement good science. It’s also why, whenever I see a new claim, my first reaction is to see if (1) the person making the claim has published on it and (2) there are publications in the peer reviewed literature that support the claim. The first criterion helps me judge whether the person is a serious scientist; the second, whether there is any plausibility to his ideas. Sure, it’s not a foolproof scheme, but it is helpful.

I only wish antivaccinationists would do the same. That they don’t explains why they seem to be embracing someone named Dr. Hanan Polansky.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Vaccines

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Does massage therapy decrease inflammation and stimulate mitochondrial growth? An intriguing study oversold

If there’s one form of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) that I find more tolerable than most, it’s massage therapy. The reason, of course, is that, whatever else anyone claims about massage, there’s no doubt that it feels good. Indeed, I’ve sort of come around to Kimball Atwood’s way of thinking. Back when he and I were on a panel together at TAM9, Kimball said something somewhat surprising, namely that he’s not sure we even need to test massage in randomized clinical trials because we all know that it feels good and if it feels good it can certainly be helpful at the very least to improve patients’ quality of life. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of woo in massage these days, and massage therapists who buy into the woo aren’t satisfied with simply using the rationale that massage feels good to recommend it to patients. They just can’t resist going beyond that to infuse massage therapy with every bit as much woo as any chiropractor or acupuncturist infuses into his respective specialty. For instance, some of the claims for massage include:

  • Decreases muscle pain & tension.
  • Rejuvenates the body and mind and lifts the spirit.
  • Relieves anxiety, stress and tension.
  • Relaxes muscles.
  • Alleviates headaches.
  • Hastens healing.
  • Increases ranges of motion.
  • Facilitates removal of waste and inflammation by-products.
  • Stimulates the immune system.
  • Eases symptoms related to fibromyalgia.
  • Promotes relaxation and comfort.
  • Reduces nausea in pregnant women.
  • Accelerates weight gain in premature infants.
  • Helps premature infants become more active and aware.
  • Increases energy and alertness.
  • Enhances morale and attitude.

Of course, there’s little doubt that a good massage probably can relax muscles, promote relaxation and comfort (which seems like the same thing to me), and enhance morale and attitude. I’d even be willing to concede that massage, properly administered, can probably also alleviate headaches (tension headaches, anyway) and increase range of motion in joints. But facilitate the removal of waste and inflammation byproducts? Stimulate the immune system (the all-purpose meaningless claim)? Hasten healing? Not so much.

All too often massage therapists ruin a perfectly good massage by imposing pseudoscientific and quack claims on it, such as claims that they are stimulating acupressure points or their adoption of the language of “energy healing.” So it was with a bit of trepidation (but also more than a bit of interest) that I took a look at some links that readers sent me about a week ago (too late, alas, for me to write about this last Monday). These links were to news stories with titles like Scientists Uncover Why Massage Heals Sore Muscles and Massage Reduces Inflammation And Promotes Growth Of New Mitochondria Following Strenuous Exercise, Study Finds. My first impression, actually, was that this was somewhat counterintuitive in that one might predict that deep kneading of muscles might actually cause a bit of inflammation and that it’s the counterirritation effect that leads to the perceived reduction in the amount of pain. Yet, according to the press release issued by McMasters University, whose contents were mirrored in many news stories, a study claiming state-of-the-art methods is concluding that massage is reducing inflammation:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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What is Science?

Consider these statements:

…there is an evidence base for biofield therapies. (citing the Cochrane Review of Touch Therapies)

The larger issue is what constitutes “pseudoscience” and what information is worthy of dissemination to the public. Should the data from our well conducted, rigorous, randomized controlled trial [of 'biofield healing'] be dismissed because the mechanisms are unknown or because some scientists do not believe in the specific therapy?…Premature rejection of findings from rigorous randomized controlled trials are as big a threat to science as the continuation of falsehoods based on belief. Thus, as clinicians and scientists, our highest duty to patients should be to investigate promising solutions with high benefit/risk ratios, not to act as gatekeepers of information based on personal opinion.

–Jain et al, quoted here

Touch therapies may have a modest effect in pain relief. More studies on HT and Reiki in relieving pain are needed. More studies including children are also required to evaluate the effect of touch on children.

Touch Therapies are so-called as it is believed that the practitioners have touched the clients’ energy field.

It is believed this effect occurs by exerting energy to restore, energize, and balance the energy field disturbances using hands-on or hands-off techniques (Eden 1993). The underlying concept is that sickness and disease arise from imbalances in the vital energy field. However, the existence of the energy field of the human body has not been proven scientifically and thus the effect of such therapies, which are believed to exert an effect on one’s energy field, is controversial and lies in doubt.

—Cochrane Review of Touch Therapies, quoted here

 …

Science is advanced by an open mind that seeks knowledge, while acknowledging its current limits. Science does not make assertions about what cannot be true, simply because evidence that it is true has not yet been generated. Science does not mistake absence of evidence for evidence of absence. Science itself is fluid.

—David Katz

When people became interested in alternative medicines, they asked me to help out at Harvard Medical School. I realized that in order to survive there, one had to become a scientist. So I became a scientist.

—Ted Kaptchuk, quoted here.

 …It seems that the decision concerning acceptance of evidence (either in medicine or religion) ultimately reflects the beliefs of the person that exist before all arguments and observation.

 —Ted Kaptchuk, quoted here.

Together they betray a misunderstanding of science that is common not only to “CAM” apologists, but to many academic medical researchers. Let me explain. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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IgG Food Intolerance Tests: What does the science say?

I spend a lot of time as a pharmacist discussing side effects and allergies to drugs. For your own safety, I won’t recommend or dispense a drug until I know your allergy status. I don’t limit the history to drugs—I want to know anything you’re allergic to, be it environmental, food, insects, or anything else. Allergies can create true therapeutic challenges: We can’t dismiss any allergy claim, but as I’ve blogged before, there’s a big gap between what many perceive as an allergy and what is clinically considered a true allergy. My concern is not only avoiding the harm of an allergic reaction, but also avoiding the potential consequences from selecting a suboptimal therapy that may in fact be appropriate. You may need a specific drug someday, so  I encourage patients to discuss vague drug allergies with their physician, and request allergist testing as required.

Food allergies can be as real as drug allergies, and are arguably much harder to prevent. We can usually control when we get penicillin. But what about peanuts, eggs, or milk, all of which can also cause life-threatening anaphylaxis?  Food allergies seems to be growing: not only anaphylaxis, but more people believe they have some sort of allergy to food.  Allergy is sometimes confused with the term “intolerance”, which seems more common, possibly as the availability of “food intolerance testing” grows. Food intolerance testing and screening is particularly popular among alternative practitioners. Testing can take different forms, but generally the consumer is screened against hundreds of food products and food additives. They are then provided with a list of foods they are “intolerant” to. I’ve spoken with consumers who are struggling to overhaul their diet, having been advised that they are actually intolerant to many of their favourite foods. These reports are taken seriously by patients who believe that they’ll feel better if they eliminate these products. In the pharmacy, I’ve been asked to verify the absence of trace amounts of different fillers in medications because of a perceived intolerance.  Children may be tested, too, and parents may be given a long list of foods they are told their child is intolerant of. I’ve seen the effects in the community, too. Think going “peanut free” is tough? A public school in my area sent home a list of forbidden food products: dairy, eggs, bananas, tree nuts, peanuts, soy, sesame, flax seed, kiwi, chicken, and bacon. Were these all true allergies? It’s not disclosed. Anaphylactic or not, the parents had informed the school, and the school had banned the food product.

But can a simple blood test actually identify and eliminate food intolerance? That’s the question I wanted to answer.

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Posted in: Basic Science, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy, Science and Medicine

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Reassessing whether low energy electromagnetic fields can have clinically relevant biological effects

It is with some trepidation that I write this, given that I realize this post might lead to charges that I’ve allowed myself to become so open-minded that my brains fell out, but I think the issues raised by what I’m about to discuss will make our readers think a bit—and perhaps spark some conversation. Because I’m in a bit of a contrarian mood, I’ll take that risk, although it’s possible I might end up with the proverbial egg on my face. As our regular readers know, the issue of the health effects of radiation from mobile phones has been a frequent topic of this blog. The reasons are obvious because fear mongering claims not based in science are frequently made in the lay press and in books (for example, Disconnect by Devra Davis) and, unfortunately, also by some physicians and scientists. Moreover, like homeopathy, the issue demands a discussion of prior probability and plausibility based on basic science alone, but the issues are a bit less clear-cut. Whereas the tenets of homeopathy clearly violate multiple laws of physics and chemistry, it is possible, albeit very unlikely, that radio waves might produce significant biological changes.

There’s also sometimes a maddening dogmatism on the part of some physicists that it’s “impossible” that long term exposure to radio waves could possibly cause cancer because such electromagnetic waves do not have anywhere near enough energy to cause ionization and thereby break chemical bonds. While it is certainly true that such radio waves can’t break chemical bonds and the likelihood that the radio waves from cell phones can cause cancer appears very low based solely on physics considerations, all too often the arguments made based on physics considerations alone use a simplistic understanding of cancer and carcinogenesis as their basis. It’s not for nothing that I have referred to such arguments as being based on a high school or freshman level of understanding about cancer—or just an outmoded understanding that prevailed a decade or two ago but today no longer does. Bernard Leikind, for instance, argued and famed skeptic Michael Shermer accepted that, because the radio waves used in cellular communications are too low energy to break chemical bonds and do not produce significant heating compared to other sources, “cell phones cannot damage living tissue or cause cancer.” Note the implicit assumption: That it is somehow necessary to “damage” living tissue in order to cause cancer. That’s an assumption that is arguably quite simplistic and ignores knowledge we’ve gained about epigenetics and how potential metabolic influences might cause cancer. Cancer is associated with characteristic cellular metabolic abnormalities, and determining which is responsible for the formation of cancer, metabolic abnormalities or gene mutations, has become a “chicken or the egg”-type of question.

I do not in any way believe that cell phone radiation actually is a cause of cancer because, unlike the case in homeopathy, where multiple well-established laws of physics would have to be overturned for homeopathy to work, I find the argument that a causation is “utterly impossible” far less persuasive than some physicists do when it comes to cell phone radiation and cancer. Even dismissing the “impossibility” argument, however, clearly such a link is at the very least incredibly implausible on physics considerations alone, as I have pointed out time and time again. Add to that the nearly completely negative epidemiological data in which only one group of researchers has been able to produce apparently “positive” studies, and my personal conclusion is that we probably already have enough data to reject a connection between radio waves and cancer and don’t need any more new large epidemiological studies; following up long term results on the ones already under way should be sufficient. That is not the same thing as arguing that radio waves have no significant biological effect, which is what, in essence, the argument from physics is based on. In fact, the inspiration for the rest of this post came from a meeting I had last week with a scientist and that scientist’s talk for our cancer center’s weekly Grand Rounds. What I learned did not demonstrate that cell phones cause cancer or even that they might cause cancer. Not even this scientist claimed his results were consistent with cell phone radiation causing cancer; in fact, he quite clearly stated they were not. However, what I learned from him cast some doubt (to me, at least) on the assumption that radio waves cannot have profound biological effects. In fact, ironically enough, this scientist is proposing the use of amplitude-modulated (AM) radio waves to treat cancer. I’m not yet convinced by any stretch of the imagination that this researcher is on to something, but his findings made me think about the perils and pitfalls of declaring something “impossible” solely on basic science considerations, because he has some very intriguing results that I can’t find a compelling reason to dismiss.

And, at least as of now, there’s no known physical mechanism that can explain his findings. Leaving aside the possibility of fraud or some sort of systematic bias that is not apparent in the methods sections of the papers I’m about to summarize, either he’s found something new and potentially promising, or he’s somehow very, very wrong.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials

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NIH Director Francis Collins doesn’t understand the problem with CAM

As the sole cancer surgeon among our stable of Science-Based Medicine (SBM) bloggers, I’m probably the most irritated at the infiltration of pseudoscience into academia (or, as we sometimes like to call it, quackademic medicine) in the realm of cancer. Part of the reason, of course, is that cancer is so common and that the consequences of adding pseudoscience to cancer therapy are among the most devastating. Witness, for instance, the use of Gonzalez therapy to treat pancreatic cancer, a form of quackery that harms patients and resulted in incredibly unethical and disastrous clinical trial of Gonzalez quackery versus chemotherapy whose results were entirely predictable, given the lack of prior plausibility of the treatment: Gonzalez protocol patients did worse, with no evidence that the therapy impacted the natural history of the disease and the Gonzalez patients scoring lower on quality of life measures. Or look at what happens when patients with breast cancer choose quackery over science-based therapy.

I realize that “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, what quackademics like to call it now, “integrative medicine” (IM) is meant to refer to “integrating” alternative therapies into SBM or “complementing” SBM with a touch of the ol’ woo, but I could never manage to understand how “integrating” quackery with SBM would do anything but weaken the scientific foundation of medicine. Moreover, weakening those foundations would have more consequences than just “humanizing” medicine; weaker scientific standards would allow not just ancient quackery like traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) into academia, but it would also provide an opening for drug and device companies to promote their wares under less rigorous requirements for evidence. There’s also perhaps a touch of personal embarrassment involved. After all, oncology and cancer surgery tend to be specialties that are the most steeped in science. If I had to rank specialties for how science-based they are, I’d certainly put oncology near the top, which is why I tend to come down so hard on “integrative oncology” and, even worse, “naturopathic oncology.”

Consequently, I was doubly disturbed several months ago when I learned that the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, had agreed to be the keynote speaker at the Eight International Society for Integrative Oncology Conference in Cleveland, OH. I say “doubly” disturbed because it disturbed me that Francis Collins would agree to speak at such a function and, perhaps even more, because the host institution was Case Western Reserve University, the institution where I both completed my surgery residency and my PhD in Physiology and Biophysics. Sadly, it now appears that my old stomping grounds at University Hospitals has been thoroughly infiltrated with quackademic medicine, as evidenced by this clinical trial of reiki for psoriasis that’s making the rounds of news services and the offering of acupuncture, reiki, and even reflexology at various UH facilities through the University Hospitals Connor Integrative Medicine Network. Let me tell you, there was none of this pseudoscience going on when I finished my residency there in 1996. Seeing it there now provokes a reaction in me not unlike Sylvester Junior’s reaction when his father Sylvester embarrasses him, particularly when I noted that the director of the CWRU Comprehensive Cancer Center, Dr. Stanton L. Gerson, was to give one of the keynote talks, entitled, “The Future of Integrative Oncology.” (Hint for those of you not familiar with classic Looney Tunes cartoons: A paper bag is involved.) I guess that by expressing my extreme disappointment and embarrassment that the institution where I learned to become a surgeon has during the last 15 years gone woo, I’ve probably just killed any opportunity I might have to work at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center ever again. Oh, well, add it to the list, along with Beth Israel and my alma mater the University of Michigan.)

Back when I first learned about it, I thought about blogging the meeting, but without much concrete to go on, given the copious other SBM-related topics to blog about, all I could do was to write a critical open letter to Dr. Collins about his decision to accept the offer to be the keynote speaker at the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO). Then yesterday I saw popping up in my e-mail a notice from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), along with a link to a story in its publication The ASCO Post entitled NIH Director Calls for Rigorous Evaluation of Integrative Medicine to Provide Evidence of Efficacy.

Et tu, Dr. Collins?
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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The rebranding of CAM as “harnessing the power of placebo”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past seven years or so that I’ve been blogging, first at my other “super secret” (or, more accurately, super “not-so-secret”) blogging location, and then the four years I’ve been blogging here at Science-Based Medicine (SBM), it’s that the vast majority of “alternative medicine,” “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), and “integrative medicine” (IM) treatments (or whatever you want to call them) are nothing more than placebo medicine. True, there are exceptions, such as herbal treatments, mainly because they can contain chemicals in them that are active drugs, but any critical look at things like homeopathy (which is water), reiki (which is faith healing substituting Eastern mystical beliefs for Christianity), acupuncture (whose effects, when tested rigorously, are found to be nonspecific), or “energy healing” must conclude that any effects these modalities have are placebo effects or responses. Given writings on this topic by Steve Novella, Mark Crislip, Harriet Hall, Peter Lipson, myself, and others, this should be abundantly clear to readers of this blog, but, even so, it bears repeating. In fact, it probably can’t be repeated enough.

There was a time not so long ago when proponents of unscientific medicine tried very, very hard to argue that their nostrums have real effects on symptoms and disease above and beyond placebo effects. They would usually base such arguments on small, less rigorously designed clinical trials, mainly because, if there’s another thing I knew before from my medical education but that has been particularly reinforced in me since I started blogging, it’s that small clinical trials are very prone to false positives. Often they’d come up with some handwaving physiological or biological explanation, which, in the case of something like homeopathy, often violated the laws of chemistry and physics. Be that as it may, the larger and more rigorously designed the clinical trial, the less apparent effects become until, in the case of CAM therapies that do nothing (like homeopathy), they collapse into no effect detectable above that of placebo. Even so, there are often enough apparently “positive” clinical trials of water (homeopathy) that homeopaths can still cling to them as evidence that homeopathy works. Personally, I think that Kimball Atwood put it better when he cited a homeopath who said bluntly, “Either homeopathy works, or clinical trials don’t!” and concluded that, for highly implausible treatments like homeopathy, clinical trials as currently constituted under the paradigm of evidence-based, as opposed to science-based, medicine don’t work very well. Indeed, contrasting SBM with EBM has been a major theme of this blog over the last four years. In any case, for a long time, CAM enthusiasts argued that CAM really, really works, that it does better than placebo, just like real medicine.

Over the last few years, however, some CAM practitioners and quackademics have started to recognize that, no, when tested in rigorous clinical trials their nostrums really don’t have any detectable effects above and beyond that of placebo. A real scientist, when faced with such resoundingly negative results, would abandon such therapies as, by definition, a placebo therapy is a therapy that doesn’t do anything for the disease or condition being treated. CAM “scientists,” on the other hand, do not abandon therapies that have been demonstrated not to work. Instead, some of them have found a way to keep using such therapies. The way they justify that is to argue that placebo medicine is not just useful medicine but “powerful” medicine. Indeed, an article by Henry K. Beecher from 1955 referred to the “powerful placebo.” This construct allows them then to “rebrand” CAM unashamedly as “harnessing the power of placebo” as a way of defending its usefulness and relevance. In doing so, they like to ascribe magical powers to placebos, implying that placebos can do more than just decrease the perception of pain or other subjective symptoms but in fact can lead to objective improvements in a whole host of diseases and conditions. Some even go so far as to claim that there can be placebo effects without deception, citing a paper in which the investigators — you guessed it! — used deception to convince their patients that their placebos would relieve their symptoms. Increasingly, placebos are invoked as a means of “harnessing the power of the mind” over the body in order to relieve symptoms and cure disease in what at times seems like a magical mystery tour of the brain.

Part of what allows CAM practitioners to get away with this is that placebo effects are poorly understood even by most physicians and, not surprisingly, even more poorly understood by the public. Moreover, we all like to think that we have more control than we do over our bodies and, in particular, illnesses and symptoms, which is why the selling of placebo effects as a means of harnessing some innate hidden power we have to control our own bodies through the power of mind is so attractive to so many, including some scientists and physicians. Exhibit A is Ted Kaptchuk, the researcher from Harvard University responsible for spinning an interesting study of placebo effects in asthma into the invocation of the power of placebo. Kimball Atwood has written extensively about Kaptchuk recently, revealing his rather dubious background and arguments. More recently, however, Kaptchuk seems to be everywhere, appearing in articles and interviews, promoting just the argument I’m talking about, that CAM is a way of harnessing placebo effects, so much so that I felt it was time to take a look at this argument.

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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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