I’ve just finished reading Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. I’d been looking forward to the publication of this book, and it exceeded my expectations.
Edzard Ernst, based at the University of Exeter in England, is the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, a post he has held for 15 years. An MD and a PhD, he also embraced alternative medicine and used to practice homeopathy. He has done extensive research and published widely. His stated objective is “to apply the principles of evidence-based medicine to the field of complementary medicine such that those treatments which demonstrably do generate more good than harm become part of conventional medicine and those which fail to meet this criterion become obsolete.” His most important accomplishment has been to “demonstrate that complementary medicine can be scientifically investigated which, in turn, brought about a change in attitude both in the way the medical establishment looks upon complementary medicine and in the way complementary medicine looks upon scientific investigation.”
Simon Singh is a science writer with a PhD in particle physics. As a team, he and Ernst are uniquely qualified to ferret out the truth about alternative medicine and explain it to the public. (more…)
On July 31 of this year, a collective groan could be heard emanating from critics of pseudomedicine. The causative factors (which is medical bombast for “the cause”) were two book reviews published in the usually staid New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM):
Integrative Oncology: Incorporating Complementary Medicine into Conventional Cancer Care
Edited by Lorenzo Cohen and Maurie Markman. 216 pp., illustrated. Totowa, NJ, Humana Press, 2008. $79.95. ISBN 978-1-58829-869-0.
Reviewed by Donald I. Abrams
Alternative Medicine? A History
By Roberta Bivins. 238 pp., illustrated. New York, Oxford University Press, 2008. $35. ISBN 978-0-19-921887-5.
Reviewed by Teresa L. Schraeder
The Wooification of Medical Journals
I’ll review the reviews, but first let’s consider why their presence in the NEJM is so disturbing. The NEJM is the most widely read and cited medical journal in the world. Among American journals, the top three are usually reckoned to be the NEJM, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and, at least for internists, the Annals of Internal Medicine (Ann Int Med). The extent to which each journal has sacrificed its integrity for the promotion of the recent wave of pseudomedicine has varied among the three: the NEJM rarely and, for the most part, unwittingly; JAMA famously in 1998 and occasionally since; and the Ann Int Med repeatedly and embarrassingly, most notably with a series of puff pieces on “CAM” that spanned several years and violated the Annals’ own policies regarding funding disclosures by authors and editors.
The “Science” and Ethics of “Natural Medicines” (and Nutrition) cont.
This is the continuation of a discussion concerning the explicit claim of “naturopathic physicians”* to being experts in the use of “natural medicines,” defined as “medicines of mineral, animal and botanical origin.” Last week’s post established that the cult has chosen to profit from the “retail selling of medications,” as evidenced by the relevant Position Paper of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) and by that organization’s having made a deal with a drug company to make profits for both itself and its members.
The Position Paper observes that such selling “could be construed as a conflict of interest on the part of the physician.” That is true, if embarrassingly understated: anyone representing himself as a physician, who both recommends and sells the same medications for a profit, has conflicting interests. The conflict undermines his claim to offering responsible advice regarding those medications, and as such is a breach of medical ethics.
The AANP’s deal with MotherNature.com was even worse: by promoting such peddling in a formal, institutional fashion, NDs and their national organization went beyond the already widespread problem of practitioners hawking drugs. It is unclear whether the deal still exists, by the way: MotherNature.com was a victim of the “dot com” bust of a few years ago. It has since been resurrected, but a quick perusal of its new website fails to reveal the old AANP relationship. Nevertheless, I have seen no evidence to suggest that the AANP has changed its view of that sort of deal.
Are NDs Truly “Learned Intermediaries” in the Use of “Natural Medicines?”
This entry discusses the other part of the claim of expertise: that, aside from their conflicting interests, NDs have real knowledge of “natural medicines.” It will become clear during the discussion that the purported naturopathic expertise in nutrition—another standard claim—is also under review. I will include or cite abundant evidence for my assertions, because I’ve found that a predictable response of representatives of the highest levels of “naturopathic medicine” is to flatly deny them. I apologize again for including excerpts from previously published material.
After her daughter left for college, Christiane Northrup, MD, went for a morning walk one day. About halfway through her walk she developed an ache in her throat radiating up into her jaw. It felt like a fist was squeezing her esophagus. It persisted even after she returned home. What would you have done?
I think even the average layperson knows that this sounds like a possible heart attack and would call 911 or head for the nearest ER. Instead, Northrup called a medical intuitive who came over and “took out the Motherpeace tarot cards to try to get some clarity.” Together, they interpreted her “heartache” as resulting from her recent disappointment and grief over her family situation. She had unmet needs and it was “no wonder my heart was forced to speak up.”
This behavior from a scientifically trained MD boggles the mind. Christiane Northrup, MD, is a board certified OB/Gyn who has become something of a guru for American women’s health through a series of books, a newsletter, a website, appearances on Oprah, etc. Her third book, The Wisdom of Menopause, has been updated and revised; a friend told me all her menopausal friends are talking about this book. I read it and was appalled. (more…)
Neurologist Robert A. Burton, MD has written a gem of a book: On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. His thesis is that “Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.” Your certainty that you are right has nothing to do with how right you are.
Within 24 hours of the Challenger explosion, psychologist Ulric Neisser had 106 students write down how they’d heard about the disaster, where they were, what they were doing at the time, etc. Two and a half years later he asked them the same questions. 25% gave strikingly different accounts, more than half were significantly different, and only 10% had all the details correct. Even after re-reading their original accounts, most of them were confident that their false memories were true. One student commented, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”
Just as we may “know” things that clearly aren’t true, we may think we don’t know when we really do. In the phenomenon of blindsight, patients with a damaged visual cortex have no awareness of vision, but can reliably point to where a light flashes when they think they are just guessing. And there are states of “knowing” that don’t correspond to any specific knowledge: mystical or religious experiences. (more…)
Why aren’t there more women in science and medicine? Just because we lack certain anatomical dangly bits, does that mean we’re less capable? Apparently Harvard’s president Lawrence H. Summers thought so. In a classic case of foot-in-mouth disease, he suggested that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. His comments (in 2005) predictably set off a media feeding frenzy. I won’t even attempt to get into that nature/nurture controversy. Whatever the statistical generalities, the fact is that individual women can and do succeed in those careers. What really matters is whether qualified women today have a fair opportunity to choose their profession and rise in it.
Something very interesting is happening in medicine. It’s happening slowly, quietly, and steadily, with no help from affirmative action programs.
At the beginning of the 20th century about 5 percent of the doctors in the United States were women. In 1970, it was still only 7 percent. By 1998, 23 percent of all doctors were women, and today, women make up more than 50 percent of the medical student population. In 1968 only 1.2% of practicing dentists were women. By 2003, 17% of dentists were women, and 35% of dentists in new active private practice were female. (more…)
Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, by Pope Brock, is not only a rip-roaring good read, but it brings up serious issues about regulation of medical practice and prosecution of quackery. It tells the story of John R. Brinkley MD, who transplanted goat glands into people, and of Morris Fishbein MD, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, who tried to stop him.
Brinkley was a colorful character whose very first job was a scam, selling a patent remedy. He went to medical school but never finished, eventually buying a diploma elsewhere for $100. A bigamist, drunkard, liar, and con man of incredible audacity, he built up an empire of quackery that made him filthy rich. Apart from his medical adventures, he practically invented modern political campaigning techniques, revolutionized advertising, and was almost single-handedly responsible for popularizing country music and the blues with his radio station.
An impotent patient supposedly told Brinkley, “Too bad I don’t have goat nuts.” So Brinkley gave him some. A few weeks later he went back for a refresher course in surgery (which he failed because of drunkenness and poor attendance). He began to feel that he was gifted and should not be bound by the “jealous sheep ethics” of the AMA. (more…)
I recently read a fascinating book, The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. He describes case histories and research indicating that the brain is far more malleable than we once thought. We used to think each function was localized to a small area of the brain and if you lost that area of brain tissue the function was gone forever. We once thought you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks. Now we know better.
Learning a new skill actually changes the structure and function of the brain, even into old age. If you exercise one finger, the area of the brain devoted to that finger enlarges. The old concept of dedicated brain areas for specific functions no longer holds. Areas of the cortex that normally process vision can learn to process totally different inputs such as hearing. This is what happens with blind people: their hearing skills are enhanced when new neural connections for hearing invade the disused visual cortex. They may not actually have better hearing acuity, but they have learned to pay more attention to auditory input and to use it to build up a representation of the world around them.
One of the more intriguing experiments he describes was in monkeys. When sensory input nerves to one arm were severed, the monkey stopped using the arm, even though the motor nerves were intact. When the good arm was put in a sling, the monkey started using the impaired arm again. When both arms were deprived of sensory input, the monkey used both arms. (more…)
For my first blog entry, I wanted to write about something important, and I couldn’t think of anything more important than a recent book by R. Barker Bausell: Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine. If you want to understand how medical research works, if you want to know what can lead patients and scientists to false conclusions, if you have ever used complementary or alternative medicine or have wondered why others do, if you value evidence over belief, if you care about the truth, you will find a treasure trove of information in this book.
Some of the treatments encompassed under “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) have been around for a long time. Before we had science, “CAM” was medicine. Back then, all we had to rely on was testimonials and beliefs. And even today, for most people who believe CAM works, belief is enough. But at some level, the public has now recognized that science matters and people are looking for evidence to support those beliefs. Advocates claim that recent research validates CAM therapies. Does it really? Does the evidence show that any CAM therapy actually works better than placebos? R. Barker Bausell asks that question, does a compellingly thorough investigation, and comes up with a resounding “NO” for an answer.
Bausell is the ideal person to ask such a question. He is a research methodologist: he designs and analyzes research studies for a living. Not only that: he was intimately involved with acupuncture research for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). So when he talks about what can go wrong in research and why much of the research on CAM is suspect, he is well worth listening to.