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An Overly Pessimistic View of Medicine

doctored book cover

Sandeep Jauhar wrote Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician to express his frustration with the modern system of medical care in America. I found the book profoundly disturbing. If his experience is representative, I can understand why so many people have been criticizing doctors for only caring about money. His experience was so different from mine that I wondered if I had led a sheltered life as a military physician and was oblivious to what was going on in the civilian world. After further reflection, I think Jauhar is unduly pessimistic. Whatever the opposite of rose-colored glasses is, he’s wearing them.

His personal experience of medicine

Dr. Jauhar is a cardiologist who works in a large teaching hospital, where he had been hired to develop a program for patients with heart failure that would implement the most up-to-date medical knowledge and provide the best possible medical care. After long, grueling years of school, residency, and fellowship, he is elated to have finally finished his training and started a job where he can accomplish something good. But he soon sinks into despair. He is appalled by the realities of life as an attending physician, the many ways in which the “system” interferes with his efforts to provide the best care to patients, the unethical behavior of other doctors, and his inability to support his family.
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Does the Movie Fed Up Make Sense?

fed up movie

The 2014 film Fed Up is an advocacy documentary. Its message:

  • There is a worldwide epidemic of obesity.
  • It is endangering our children.
  • Increased sugar consumption is responsible.
  • The food industry is responsible for our increased sugar consumption because it puts hidden sugar in processed foods, bombards us with advertising, favors profits over health, and lobbies against regulation.
  • The government is responsible because it has failed to control the food industry.

The film has received mostly positive reviews and has been called the Inconvenient Truth of the health movement. It was written and directed by Stephanie Soechtig, whose earlier films attacked GMO foods and the bottled water industry, and narrated by Katie Couric, who “gave anti-vaccine ideas a shot” on her talk show in late 2013.

The film shows families struggling with childhood obesity and “experts” expressing their opinions. Their selection of “experts” is heavy on politicians and journalists and light on nutrition scientists.
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Why Does This Immunologist Reject Vaccinations?

Vaccination is arguably medicine’s greatest success. It has eradicated smallpox and has saved millions from death and suffering from a growing list of preventable diseases. It’s surprising that it has so many critics. Most of them are either not educated in medical science (like Jenny McCarthy) or are educated but prefer to reject science in favor of anecdotal experience (like Jay Gordon). Their arguments have been examined ad nauseum on this blog and elsewhere, and are easy to dismiss. But when I learned that an immunologist had written a book rejecting the whole idea of vaccination, I couldn’t dismiss it so easily. An expert in the field obviously knows more than I do about the relevant science; and if nothing else, she might have some valid criticisms of vaccines that I had overlooked. In 2012 Tetyana Obukhanych, PhD, published a short (53 page) book that is available in a Kindle edition: Vaccine Illusion: How Vaccination Compromises Our Natural Immunity and What We Can Do To Regain Our Health. I read the book hoping to learn something, and I did learn some things, but not anything that would make me question the current vaccine recommendations. I tried valiantly to understand her message; I think I succeeded. I’ll try to summarize what she is saying and explain why I think she got it wrong.

Vaccinefear
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The Unpersuadables

The Unpersuadables

The Unpersuadables

We would like to believe people are rational. We would like to believe that if they have formed a false belief based on inaccurate information and poor reasoning, they will change that belief when they are provided with accurate information and better reasoning. We are frequently disappointed.

An example of what should happen

I recently talked with a college professor who believed chiropractic treatment could lower blood pressure. His belief was based on a media report of a chiropractic study. He thought it was plausible that neck manipulation could somehow relieve obstructions to blood flow to the base of the brain, thereby somehow correcting the cause of high blood pressure. I told him that rationale was anatomically and physiologically implausible. I pointed out that the researchers used NUCCA, a form of manipulation that is rejected by most chiropractors. He did not know what NUCCA was. I provided him with information, including links to the study itself and to chiropractor Sam Homola’s excellent critique of the study. My friend changed his mind and thanked me for educating him.

An example of what all too often happens

I was invited to give the “con” side of a pro/con presentation on dowsing to a local discussion group. I lent my opponent my copy of Vogt and Hyman’s classic book Water Witching USA so he would know ahead of time what I was going to say. He read it. The book explains how the ideomotor effect creates the illusion that the dowsing rod moves of its own accord and explains that dowsers have never been able to pass controlled scientific tests. I said as much in my “con” presentation. His “pro” presentation consisted of two arguments: he had personally seen dowsing work, and lots of people believed in it. He didn’t even try to rebut my facts and arguments; he simply refused to engage with them in any way. It was as if he had not read the book and had not heard anything I said. Afterwards, one of the audience was heard to say she would have liked to hear more about how dowsing worked and less about how it didn’t work!

Will Storr investigates

Sadly, some people are unpersuadable. They might as well be saying “My mind’s made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.” We have seen plenty of glaring examples in the comments section of this blog. Will Storr wrote a book The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science about his struggle to understand the phenomenon. He did a great job of investigative reporting, interviewing people with strange beliefs, spending time with them and also with their critics, and reading pertinent research. (more…)

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Diet Cults vs. Science-Based Healthy Eating

Diet Cults
This will be shorter than my usual book reviews and is something of an afterthought. I just finished writing a long article on “Food Myths” that Michael Shermer had asked me to write as a cover article for an upcoming issue of Skeptic magazine, and while researching the subject I read a book that someone had suggested to me (I’ve forgotten who you are, but thank you!). It occurred to me that since not everyone who reads SBM subscribes to Skeptic, it would be good to tell this audience about the book too.

(Note: if you subscribed, you could not only read my upcoming “Food Myths” article but also my regular SkepDoc column and my long article “On Miracles” in the next issue. And there’s lots of other great stuff in the magazine, including the Junior Skeptic section for your kids and grandkids. A digital subscription is available for only $14.99 and you can even get a trial issue for free, so you have no excuse not to check it out. End of commercial.)

The book is Diet Cults: The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide to Healthy Eating for the Rest of Us, by Matt Fitzgerald, an endurance sport and nutrition writer. Not a doctor, but he understands science better than a lot of doctors who have written about diet and nutrition. His reasoning is persuasive and is supported by the scientific evidence. (more…)

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Antibiotics vs. the Microbiome

missing microbes

In 1850, one in four American babies died before their first birthday, and people of all ages died of bacterial infections that could have been successfully treated today with antibiotics. Unfortunately, treatments that have effects usually have side effects, and we are seeing problems due to the overuse of antibiotics. They are given to people with viral infections for which they are useless and to food animals to improve their growth. As a result, antibiotic-resistant organisms are evolving and the development of new antibiotics is not keeping up with the threat. This is common knowledge, but we’re starting to realize that there may be other problems with antibiotics even when they are used correctly to save lives.

The rates of obesity, diabetes, asthma, food allergies, hay fever, eczema, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, acid reflux disease, and esophageal cancer are all on the rise. Martin Blaser, MD, director of the Human Microbiome Program at NYU, thinks antibiotics may be to blame, either as a causal or a contributing factor. In his book Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues, he describes some of the fascinating research he and others have been doing to elucidate the role of the more than 100 trillion microbes that live on and in each of us, and the possibility that antibiotics may have a causal role in several of the so-called diseases of civilization. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Evolution, Obstetrics & gynecology, Pharmaceuticals

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A Misguided Apology

A new book by Thomas Schneider, MD, offers A Physician’s Apology. The subtitle asks, “Are WE making you sick?” I was eager to read it, because I could think of many things doctors might be apologizing for: overdiagnosis, overtreatment, ordering unnecessary tests, pathologizing the vicissitudes of everyday life, offering misleading low-fat diet advice, misrepresenting inadequately tested treatments, not putting enough emphasis on prevention, prescribing medication before giving lifestyle changes a chance, etc. I was disappointed: his basic apology was “Truth is extremely hard to find in medicine and science, and I’m sorry,” which is true but is hardly his fault. Then he promises to “tell you a number of medical and scientific facts that are different from what many have always been told.” He blames commercials, creative marketing, and clueless doctors. Then he offers his own “truths” and his personal recipe for wellness. Some of these “truths” are questionable, and some are frankly wrong.

a-physicians-apology

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Dr. Joe Writes About Quackery

Not long ago I wrote about the free online “Food for Thought” course. Joe Schwarcz (“Dr. Joe”) was one of the three professors teaching that course. He also has a radio show, a blog, a podcast, and he writes books. His newest book will be of particular interest to SBM readers: Is That a Fact? Frauds, Quacks, and the Real Science of Everyday Life.

dr-hoe-is-that-a-fact

I reviewed an earlier book of his, The Right Chemistry, for Skeptic magazine. You can read my review online here. I called him “The Carl Sagan of Chemistry” for his ability to popularize science and make it not only palatable but fascinating and entertaining. In the new book, Dr. Joe turns his attention to exactly the kind of subjects we cover on this blog. He is a chemist and most of us are physicians, but we reach the same conclusions because we look at the evidence from the same rigorous scientific viewpoint.

In The Right Chemistry, Dr. Joe explains that “chemical” does not mean “bad stuff” — chemicals make up the entire world, and we are made of chemicals that our own body manufactures. He shares his encyclopedic store of obscure and intriguing scientific facts. Have you ever heard of kangatarians? Did you know asparagus can grow up to 10 inches a day? Can you explain why crystals of Epsom salts crumble if you yell at them? Do you think explosives can’t be made on a plane with small amounts of liquids? (Dr. Joe thinks they can, but for obvious reasons he’s not divulging the recipe.) You probably didn’t know that in World War II the U.S. military developed a mixture called “Who Me?” that smelled like feces and was dispensed with an atomizer. French Resistance fighters were supposed to surreptitiously spray it on German officers to embarrass them, but it wasn’t a great success since the sprayer ended up as stinky as the sprayee.
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Nature vs. Technology

For those who dismiss advocates of the “natural” as ignorant of science and deluded by the logical fallacy that natural = best, Nathanael Johnson’s new book is an eye-opener: All Natural: A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover if the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier. If nothing else, it is a testament to the ability of the human mind to overcome childhood indoctrination in a belief system, to think independently, and to embrace science and reason.

Nathanael Johnson was brought up by hippie parents who subscribed to every “natural” belief and fad. His mother nearly died of a postpartum hemorrhage when he was born at home (he weighed 11 pounds!). His parents didn’t report his birth, and he didn’t have a birth certificate. He co-slept with his parents, never wore diapers (imagine the clean-up!), was allowed to play in the dirt and chew on the snails he found there, was fed a Paleolithic diet, was never allowed any form of sugar, didn’t know there was such a thing as an Oreo cookie, was home-schooled, and did not know that public nudity was taboo until he and his brother shocked the folks at a church picnic by stripping naked to go swimming in the lake. Nudity was customary in his home, and he was encouraged to “let his balls breathe.”

As he grew up, he started to question some of the dogmas he had learned from his parents. He had been taught that good health resulted from forming connections with nature, but he found that nature “generally wanted to eat me.” Now an adult and a journalist, he understands science and how to do research. He tried to read the scientific literature with an unbiased mindset, asking questions about the subjects in his book’s title rather than looking for evidence to support any prior beliefs, and he arrived at pretty much the same conclusions we science-based medicine folks did. But he still appreciates that a natural approach has value, and he seeks to reconcile nature with technology. He calls his book a comfortable refuge from people who are driven to extremes. (more…)

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The Diet Fix

Diets fail. Not just often, but almost always—90% of the time. If diets worked we wouldn’t have a worldwide obesity problem. And obesity is a problem that needs to be solved. The prevalence of obesity has doubled since 1980. As a public health issue, there are few determinants of illness that are more destructive, as obesity contributes to the growing rates of diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. There’s no “one true cause” of all illness, but obesity comes pretty close. When people ask me for the single most important thing they can do for their health, my advice (after quitting smoking) is to (1) ensure you keep your weight under control and (2) exercise in any way possible.

Despite its tremendous impact on health, I’ve only blogged about obesity in an indirect way—by pointing out what doesn’t work. Dr. Oz is my perpetual source of bad health information with his regular promotion of bogus “weight loss” supplements like the green coffee bean “miracle”. I’ve also criticized eating programs like the fads of “Eating Clean”, gluten “intolerance”, or harmful diet delusions like “detox”. It’s the typical skeptical science blogger approach—spot pseudoscience, debunk it, and hope you did something good. But none of my posts have focused on what one should do—just what you shouldn’t. Weekly SBM contributor Dr. Mark Crislip recently commented that what we (SBM) support manifests in what we oppose. He’s right, because that’s the easy approach. Using the principles of science-based medicine, there’s an awful lot to oppose in the current writing and popular opinion on how to treat obesity. And my professional advice in the role of a pharmacist has been limited to steering people away from supplements, and then giving some basic advice about dietary planning. Anecdotes and platitudes. I admit that I’ve told patients to “eat less and exercise more”.
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