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Autism’s false prophets revealed

appIn the brief time that Science-Based Medicine has existed, I’ve become known as the vaccine blogger of the group. True, Steve Novella sometimes posts about antivaccine pseudoscience and fear-mongering (unlike me, he’s even been directly attacked by David Kirby) and both Mark Crislip and Harriet Hall have each done one post about it, but, at least this far, hands down I’ve done more posts about the misinformation, pseudoscience, and outright quackery spread by antivaccine activists such as J. B. Handley’s Generation Rescue and his recently recruited empty-headed celebrity spokesperson Jenny McCarthy, not to mention a number of others who promote the resurgence of infectious disease by sowing doubts about the safety of the most effective weapon the mind of humans have ever devised against it. Truly, few uses of “alternative” medicine bother me as much as the antivaccine orientation of so much of the movement supporting it, a movement that has also led to all manner of “biomedical” treatments (quackery).

What you might not know is how I developed my interest in this particular area of dangerous pseudoscience. After all, I’m a cancer surgeon and an NIH-funded cancer investigator, not a pediatrician, immunologist, or neurologist. As hard as it is for me to believe, given that it seems today that I’ve always been refuting this nonsense, I only first discovered the antivaccine movement about three and a half years ago. True, I had been a regular on certain Usenet newsgroups for at least four or five years before that and had encountered antivaccinationists there before, but my contact with them online had been sporadic, and they seemed “out there” even in comparison to the usual run-of-the-mill alt-med maven. But then in the spring of 2005 I started to notice in a big way the cadre of pseudoscientists, parents of autistic children, and others who pushed the myth that thimerosal-containing vaccines or vaccines in general cause autism. Oddly enough, it started out with the Huffington Post, of all places. In May 2005, Arianna Huffington started a large group blog, chock full of famous pundits and celebrities writing blog posts. Within three weeks of its formation, I had noticed a very disturbing aspect of the Huffington Post, and that was that it appeared to be providing a major soapbox for antivaccinationists, including a post by Janet Grilo of Cure Autism Now, two posts by that propagandist of antivaccinationists David Kirby (with whom our fearless leader Steve Novella has managed to get into a bit of a tussle), and posts by that Santa Monica pediatrician to the children of the stars, Dr. Jay Gordon, a man who assiduously denies being “antivaccine” but parrots the most blatantly obvious talking points of the antivaccine movement and is currently best known as being the pediatrician for Jenny McCarthy’s son Evan. At the very least, Dr. Gordon is an apologist for the antivaccination movement, and he has become one of the “go-to” guys for the media looking for physicians who are “vaccine skeptics,” making numerous radio and TV appearances to promote his “skepticism.”

The next phase of my “awakening” to just how pervasive antivaccine fearmongering and pseudoscience were came when Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. wrote an incredibly dishonest and deceptive screed that got wide coverage in the summer of 2005. His article, called, charmingly enough, Deadly Immunity was a rehash of all the misinformation about thimerosal in vaccines and autism wrapped up with in a bow of conspiracy-mongering worthy of a 9/11 Truther with a penchant for quote-mining that would make a creationist blush. The article appeared simultaneously on Salon.com (which normally doesn’t publish such nonsense) and Rolling Stone, a magazine that really should stay away from science and stick to covering entertainment and politics. It was followed by a media blitz by RFK Jr. and antivaccine propagandist David Kirby, best known for his credulous treatment of the thimerosal/autism link, Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy, published a few months before RFK, Jr.’s article, and his subsequent activities posting antivaccine nonsense on Huffington Post and, more recently, on the quackery-promoting antivaccine blog Age of Autism.

I’ve alluded to the fact before that I have quite a bit of blogging experience under another guise. Indeed, I’m sure many of the readers here know what that guise is. Suffice it to say that at the time I prefaced a post about RFK, Jr.’s article by saying that Salon.com had “flushed its credibility down the toilet” and referred to the article itself as the “the biggest, steamingest, drippiest turd Salon.com has ever published.” Clearly (and fortunately), I use much less–shall we say?–colorful language on this blog, but I bring this up so that the reader knows where I am coming from. Indeed, since that time in the summer of 2005, I’ve been wondering when scientists, public health officials, and physicians supporting science-based medicine would finally wake up and start to push back against this tide of antivaccine nonsense, which is starting to result in the resurgence of measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases. This year, I’ve seen some hopeful signs, including organizations like Voices for Vaccines and Every Child By Two, as well as other signs of push-back against the antivaccine movement, which, I hate to admit, has been clearly winning the P.R. war. What there hasn’t been yet is a book written from a scientific viewpoint that directly addresses the history of the recent resurgence of the antivaccine movement and refutes the pseudoscience that it promotes.

Until now, that is.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster?

Quacks and their apologists often cite surgery and emergency treatments of traumatic injury and a few other catastrophic or potentially catastrophic events as the only ”conventional” or “allopathic” methods that they consistently recommend. Explicitly or implicitly, for most problems they tout “holistic” or “CAM” treatments. In modern medicine, however, there are plenty of non-surgical and non-emergency treatments whose outcomes are so manifest that even the most exuberant advocates of implausible medical claims (IMC) seem careful to steer clear, lest they blow their cover. Where are the promoters or consumers of homeopathic contraceptives? Why haven’t we heard of a chiropractic adjustment for high blood sugar? How many pitches for Ayurvedic treatments of gout have you seen? There are exceptions, of course, the most notable being the nearly ubiquitous anti-immunization stance among IMC promoters.

Anesthesiology and Implausible Claims

In my day job I specialize in anesthesiology, a non-surgical field whose methods are so obviously effective that little is heard from the IMC crowd. Consider: is it likely that even the slickest of the current crop of snake oil salesmen, if they had the bad sense to try, could talk many people into accepting an implausible method for rendering the body insensible to pain? No, that would require a more effective form of persuasion, such as that used in China to promote “acupuncture anesthesia” from the mid-1950s until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. That’s a story I’ll tell another time.

A few other implausible claims have crept into the broader realm of anesthesiology. Stimulation of the “pericardial 6″ acupuncture point on the ventral aspect of the wrist is said to prevent post-operative nausea. There is little basis for this, the Cochrane Review notwithstanding. Verbal messages, given to a patient under general anesthesia, are said to result in “faster healing.” The major proponent of this claim is Peggy Huddleston, a self-described psychotherapist with an M.T.S. (Master of Theological Studies) degree from the Harvard Divinity School. Ms. Huddleston appears to have parlayed the “faster healing” claim into a successful entreprenurial venture, featuring a website, workshops, CDs, and a book:

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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“Patient-Centered Care” and the Society for Integrative Oncology

Should Medical Journals Inform Readers if a Book Reviewer can’t be Objective?

At the end of last week’s post I suggested that book reviewer Donald Abrams and the New England Journal of Medicine had withheld information useful for evaluating Abrams’ review: that he is the Secretary/Treasurer of the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO), the organization of which Lorenzo Cohen, the first editor of the book that Abrams reviewed,* is President. I also promised to look at material from the book and from the Society’s website in order to discover “data that will allow even the most conventional oncologists to appreciate [the value of 'integrative' methods].”

There is little question that Abrams and Cohen know each other, or at least that Abrams couldn’t have been expected to write an entirely objective review of Cohen’s book. Abrams is the Program Chair for the Society’s upcoming 5th International Conference, sponsored by the American Cancer Society. He and Cohen will be sharing the stage for the “Intro/Welcome.” Does it matter that most NEJM readers wouldn’t have learned of this association by reading the review? Probably not, in the case of readers who are well-versed in the misleading language of “CAM.”

I believe that most readers of medical journals are not so sophisticated. Otherwise, how could it have been so easy for “CAM” literature to seep through the usual evaluative filters, not only in medical schools and government but in the editorial boardrooms of prestigious journals? For anyone from the Journal who might be following this thread, Dr. Sampson’s satirical but deadly serious account of “how we did it” is obligatory reading.

Do “Integrative Oncology” Methods have Value?

Now let’s take a look at what Dr. Cohen’s book and the SIO are up to. The book’s introduction and table of contents are available on Amazon.com. The introduction contains the usual, misleading assertions and falsehoods that are ubiquitous in “CAM” promotions. I’ve added a few hyperlinks:

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Energy Medicine, Medical Ethics

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Trick or Treatment

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…)

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The New England Journal of Medicine Disappoints

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.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Medical Academia

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Another State Promotes the Pseudoscientific Cult that is “Naturopathic Medicine.” Part 4

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.

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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Medical Ethics, Nutrition, Politics and Regulation

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Christiane Northrup, MD: Science Tainted with Strange Beliefs

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…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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On Being Certain

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…)

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

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Women in Medicine

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…)

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Charlatan: Quackery Then and Now

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.

The Charlatan

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…)

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