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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…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Nutrition

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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.

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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.

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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…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Nutrition, Obstetrics & gynecology

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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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Depression Re-examined: A New Way to Look at an Old Puzzle

Depression affects approximately 10% of Americans. It can be fatal; I found estimates of suicide rates ranging from 2-15% of patients with major depression. When it doesn’t kill, it impairs functioning and can make life almost unbearably miserable. It is a frustrating condition because there is no lab test to diagnose it, no good explanation of its cause, and the treatments are far from ideal.

Jonathan Rottenberg is a psychologist and research scientist who began to study depression after his own recovery from a major depressive illness. He teaches psychology at the University of South Florida, where he is the director of the Mood and Emotion laboratory. He has launched the Come Out of the Dark campaign to start a better, richer national conversation about depression. In a new book The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, he reviews insights from recent experiments and asks a number of difficult questions, such as why humans evolved to be subject to incapacitating depressions. He comes up with some startling hypotheses, including the idea that evolution favored depression because of its survival value and that depression is essentially a good thing. He offers his ideas as the basis of a paradigm shift. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Evolution, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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How to Think

Robert Todd Carroll, the author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary, has a new book out: The Critical Thinker’s Dictionary: Biases, Fallacies, and Illusion and what you can do about them. Since some of our commenters and most of the CAM advocates we critique are constantly committing logical fallacies, a survey of logical fallacies is a good idea both for us and for them, and this book fits the bill.

When I received the book in the mail, I set it aside, thinking it would be a somewhat boring listing of things I already knew. When I finally got around to reading it, I was surprised and delighted. It held my interest, reminded me of things I had forgotten, explained other things I had never heard of, and provided entertaining stories to illustrate each point. Best of all, the bulk of his examples are taken from medicine and relate directly to the topics we discuss on SBM.

Carroll is well-qualified to write about logical fallacies: he is a retired professor of philosophy who has long promoted skepticism and taught classes in critical thinking, and he writes in an entertaining, accessible style. He started The Skeptic’s Dictionary website in 1994 with 50 articles and it has now grown to several hundred articles. It attracts more than a million visitors a month, and some of its entries have been translated into more than a dozen languages. It has become a go-to reference for anyone seeking the facts on questionable claims about everything from crop circles to homeopathy. Its articles are thorough and well documented with lots of references and links. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Critical Thinking

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Tribalism and Medical Ethics

Science is intended to discover the “is”, not the “ought;” facts, not values. Science can’t tell us whether an action is moral; it can only provide evidence to help inform moral decisions. For instance, some people who believe abortion is immoral reject birth control methods that prevent implantation of a fertilized ovum on the grounds that it constitutes abortion; science can determine that a particular birth control method prevents fertilization rather than preventing implantation of a fertilized ovum. A new book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, by Joshua Greene, provides some intriguing insights that are pertinent to medical ethics.

He thinks tribalism is the central tragedy of modern life. Evolution equipped us for cooperation within our own tribe but not for cooperation with other tribes. Cooperation with related individuals helps spread our own genes, but we are in competition with other tribes and cooperating with them might help spread their genes to the detriment of our own. It boils down to Us vs. Me and Us vs. Them. He uses the word “tribes” not in the original sense (Hutus vs. Tutsis), but to include Democrats vs. Republicans, Catholics vs. Protestants, CAM vs. science-based medicine, Arabs vs. Israelis, climate change activists vs. climate change deniers, and any other ideological or nationalistic group. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Critical Thinking, Evolution, Medical Ethics

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Philosophy Meets Medicine

Note: This was written as a book review for Skeptical Inquirer magazine and will be published in its Jan/Feb 2014 issue.

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Medicine is chock-full of philosophy and doesn’t know it.  Mario Bunge, a philosopher, physicist, and CSI (Center for Skeptical Inquiry) fellow, wants to bring philosophy and medicine together for mutual benefit. He has written a book full of insight and wisdom, Medical Philosophy: Conceptual Issues in Medicine.

Whether doctors recognize it or not, medicine is firmly based on the philosophical principles of materialism, systemism, realism, scientism, and humanism. Bunge explains that:

Without materialism, both diseases and therapies would be taken to be purely spiritual.

Without systemism, every disease would be attributed to an independent module.

Without realism, diseases would be viewed as either imaginary or as social flaws.

Without scientism, either nihilism or dogmatism would prevail, and all the achievements of biomedical research of the last 500 years would be consigned to oblivion.

Without humanism, all medical practice would be mercenary, and there would be no public health care. (more…)

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