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How “they” view “us”

Over the weekend, I was perusing my Google Alerts, along with various blogs and news websites, looking for my weekly topic, when I noticed a disturbance in the pseudoscience Force. It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed many times before, but, as far as I can tell, I haven’t actually blogged about it here, at least not specifically, although I have mentioned it, particularly in posts about Stanislaw Burzynski. I have, however, blogged about it over at my not-so-super-secret other blog, which means that some of the thoughts (if you can call them that) that I plan to lay down in this post will likely seem familiar to some of you, but I think this is an important enough topic that I should cover it here, too. As arrogant as I might sometimes seem, even I’m not so deluded as to think that the fraction of SBM readers who are regulars at my not-so-super-secret other blog is anything greater than a clear minority, and even for those of you for whom there’s overlap I’ll try to make things different enough to be interesting.

On Friday, Sharon Hill published a post over at Doubtful News entitled Chiropractors get their spine out of place over critique. It’s about how chiropractors have reacted to a post by Steve Salzberg over at Forbes entitled New Medicare Data Reveal Startling $496 Million Wasted On Chiropractors. Salzberg’s blog post was basically about just that, namely the amount of money billed Medicare by chiropractors, information that’s possible to obtain since the government released Medicare billing data for individual practitioners. Salzberg pointed out that half a billion dollars is a lot of money, more than twice as much as what is wasted every year on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM). The result was rapid. Chiropractors swarmed, complaining to Forbes.com, and making the usual threats to sue, much as they actually did sue Simon Singh and, fortunately, saw their lawsuit blow up in their faces.

This, of course, can be looked upon as a purely mercenary protection of turf and livelihood not unlike how Daniel Kopans attacks any study that finds mammography to be less effective than thought (or even ineffective) in decreasing deaths from breast cancer. There is, however, a form of backlash against criticism of pseudoscience that is different and, when I first encountered it, more disturbing to deal with. It’s a level of pure, visceral hatred that is difficult to understand; that is, until you try to put yourself into your “enemy’s” shoes. Consider this post an exercise in doing just that, an exercise that will no doubt shock at least one of our readers.
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Posted in: Cancer, Chiropractic, Critical Thinking, Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Science and the Media, Vaccines

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What Whole Foods Markets Doesn’t Tell You

Whole Foods Market is a relentlessly hip American supermarket chain which prides itself on organic fruits and vegetables, gluten-free just-about-everything, and high-end touches like wine bars and exotic take out items (roasted yucca, anyone?). The health products aisle is stocked with Bach Flower and homeopathic remedies. For example, in-house brand Flu Ease: “an established homeopathic formula that should be taken at the first sign of flu for temporary relief of symptoms including fever chills and body aches.”

Selling Flu Ease and like products certainly exhibits a lack of appreciation for scientific evidence, not to mention basic science. But I recently saw a product in the checkout line that was so filled with over-the-top quackery and so shocking in its disregard for the public’s health that I haven’t been back to Whole Foods since. And I won’t be going back.

The product? A glossy, slickly-produced magazine with the conspiracy-minded title What Doctors Don’t Tell You. The April 2014 issue promises, in banner-headline font size, a “New Light on Cancer.” It features the well-known symbol of fighting breast cancer, a loop of pink ribbon, but with a tear in the middle of the loop. We’ll look into this “new light” in a bit.

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Posted in: Cancer, Critical Thinking, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Mammography and the acute discomfort of change

As I write this, I am attending the 2014 meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR, Twitter hashtag #AACR14) in San Diego. Basically, it’s one of the largest meetings of basic and translational cancer researchers in the world. I try to go every year, and pretty much have succeeded since around 1998 or 1999. As an “old-timer” who’s attended at least a dozen AACR meetings and presented many abstracts, I can see various trends and observe the attitudes of researchers involved in basic research, contrasting them to that of clinicians. One difference is, as you might expect, that basic and translational researchers tend to embrace new findings and ideas much more rapidly than clinicians do. This is not unexpected because the reason scientists and clinical researchers actually do research is because they want to discover something new. Physicians who are not also researchers become physicians because they want to take care of patients. Because they represent the direct interface between (hopefully) science-based medicine and actual patients, they have a tendency to be more conservative about embracing new findings or rejecting current treatments found not to be effective.

While basic scientists are as human anyone else and therefore just as prone to be suspicious and dismissive of findings that do not jibe with their scientific world view, they can (usually) eventually be convinced by experimental observations and evidence. As I’ve said many times before, the process is messy and frequently combative, but eventually science wins out, although sometimes it takes far longer than in retrospect we think it should have, an observations frequently exploited by advocates of pseudoscience and quackery to claim that their pseudoscience or quackery must be taken seriously because “science was wrong before.” To this, I like to paraphrase Dara O’Briain’s famous adage that just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale that you want. But I digress (although only a little). In accepting the validity of science that indicates either that a medical intervention that was commonly used either doesn’t help, doesn’t help as much as we thought it did, or can even be harmful, they have to contend with the normal human reluctance to admit to oneself that what one was doing before might not have been of value (or might have been of less value than previously believed) or that, worst of all, might have caused harm. Or, to put it differently, physicians understandably become acutely uncomfortable when faced with evidence that the benefit-risk profile of common treatment or test might not be as favorable as previously believed. Add to that the investment that various specialties have in such treatments, which lead to financial conflicts of interest (COI) and desires to protect turf (and therefore income), and negative evidence can have a hard go among clinicians.
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Bob and I are now published in Skeptical Inquirer

As regular readers know, I was quite happy that Skeptical Inquirer (SI) agreed to publish articles by Bob Blaskiewicz and myself about the highly dubious cancer doctor in Houston known as Stanislaw Burzynski. Indeed, Bob and I have been busily doing our best to promote it, appearing on various podcasts, including Point of Inquiry and, most recently, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, where once again we’ve called on skeptics to help us put pressure on our elected officials to prevent Dr. Burzynski from continuing to take advantage of desperate cancer patients, many with incurable disease, particularly incurable brain cancers. It’s in this spirit that I write this uncharacteristically brief post.

My only disappointment thus far was that SI is still largely print-only, which meant that I could only expose our article to subscribers and urge nonsubscribers to pick up a copy (which, by the way, you can still do, as I believe the issue with Bob’s and my articles is still on the stands). Given that my article was designed to be a primer on Stanislaw Burzynski for skeptics, while Bob’s article was intended to make suggestions about what you as supporters of science-based medicine can do to try to protect cancer patients, I’m now happy to announce that SI has published both of our articles online:

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Posted in: Cancer, Politics and Regulation

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A little more weekend shameless self-promotion to spread an important message about Stanislaw Burzynski

Weekends seem to be the time for shameless self-promotion. At least, some weekends are. So, in that tradition, I can’t help blowing my own horn a bit and urging SBM readers to head on over to listen to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Episode #455, March 29, 2014. There, Bob Blaskiewicz and I are interviewed about Stanislaw Burzynski and what you, as supporters of science-based medicine, can do to counter the efforts of his supporters to pressure the FDA to let children with cancer receive antineoplastons, efforts that are yielding fruit.

Bob Blaskiewicz has set up a Change.org petition “Protect Desperate Patients from the Houston Cancer Quack“. Bob and I urge you to check it out and sign it.

In the meantime, for those of you in Rep. Darrell Issa’s district, note that I will be in San Diego from April 5th to 9th attending the American Association for Cancer Research Meeting. If there are any skeptics in the San Diego area who would like advice on getting this message to Rep. Issa and/or having a meetup, drop me a line at my e-mail address on our contact page.

Posted in: Announcements, Cancer

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Stanislaw Burzynski’s propaganda victory on antineoplastons: The FDA caves

Mark Crislip, founder of the Society for Science-Based Medicine, whose board of directors I’m proud to be serving on, an organization that you should join if you haven’t already, sometimes jokes that our logo should be an image of Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra whom Zeus punished by compelling him to roll an immense boulder up a hill. However, the boulder was enchanted and, as soon as Sisyphus reached the top, it would roll back down the hill. Sisyphus was thus forced to repeat this action throughout all eternity. The metaphor is obvious. Those of us who try to combat quackery and the infiltration of pseudoscience in medicine often feel a lot like Sisyphus. I always used to argue that, as amusing as it might be to have such a logo as an “in” joke, it’s far too much of a downer to inspire what SSBM wants to inspire: Action in the form of volunteers taking on projects, such as converting Quackwatch into a wiki and then continuously updating and adding to that wiki indefinitely. We have to believe that there is hope of someday succeeding. “Let’s push that boulder up a hill one more time!” does not exactly constitute an inspiring rally cry, although I can definitely understand the feeling at times the older I get and the longer I’ve been doing this. We can all appreciate gallows humor at times, and, besides, I’m not that pessimistic. I can’t afford to be.

Even so, I can understand the Sisyphus analogy right now with respect to an unfortunately frequent subject of this blog, the doctor in Houston who proclaims himself a cancer doctor, even though he has no formal training in medical oncology, isn’t even board-certified in internal medicine, the prerequisite for undertaking advanced training in medical oncology, and has no discernable training in clinical trials management. I’m referring, of course, to Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD, the Polish doctor who since 1977 has been treating patients with substances that he has dubbed “antineoplastons” (ANPs). What are ANPs? Burzynski claimed to have discovered ANPs during his time at Baylor and described them as endogenous cancer-fighting chemicals in human blood and urine. Unfortunately, he soon became convinced that only he could develop them into an effective chemotherapy drug and left Baylor to administer ANPs to his own cancer patients. Patients flocked to him because he claimed to be able to cure cancers that conventional medicine can’t cure.

This led to a series of battles between Burzynski and various authorities, including the Texas Medical Board, the FDA, and various attorneys general, because of his use of ANPs, which are not and never have been FDA approved, as well as for various—shall we say?—issues with insurance companies. Ultimately, in the 1990s Burzynski beat the rap and effectively neutered the FDA’s case against him by submitting dozens of clinical trials to the FDA for approval, which, given how much pressure the FDA was under from Burzynski’s friends in high places (like Texas Representative Joe Barton), the FDA ended up approving. However, as Burzynski’s lawyer himself bragged, these clinical trials were shams designed to allow Burzynski to keep treating cancer patients, not clinical trials designed to produce any real evidence of efficacy. Not surprisingly, although Burzynski has published the odd case report or tiny case series, he has not yet published the full results of even a single one of his many phase II trials. There is, quite simply, no convincing evidence that ANPs have significant antitumor activity in vivo in humans, even after 37 years. Meanwhile, the FDA has found numerous examples of Burzynski’s abuse of clinical trials, failure to keep necessary data, and failure to protect human subjects, while exposés by BBC Panorama and Liz Szabo at USA TODAY have been most unflattering, revealing at least one dead child as a result of the toxicity of Burzynski’s drug and a pattern of minimizing and hiding reports of adverse reactions.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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A bit of shameless self-promotion: Dr. Gorski interviewed by Point of Inquiry about Stanislaw Burzynski

Every so often, I or one of my fellow SBM bloggers, is interviewed somewhere. This time, it’s my turn, and this time I was interviewed by Lindsay Beyerstein over at Point of Inquiry. In these days when credulous reporters still, in essence, do Burzynski’s bidding with respect to the message he wants to get out, while Burzynski takes advantage of the desperation of patients with incurable cancers, every little bit helps to counter that message.

Hopefully that’s what I’ve done. Please check out the interview.

Posted in: Cancer

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A tale of quackademic medicine at the University of Arizona Cancer Center

Quackademic medicine.

I love that term, because it succinctly describes the infiltration of pseudoscientific medicine into medical academia. As I’ve said many times, I wish I had been the one to coin the phrase, but I wasn’t. To the best of my ability to determine, I first picked it up from Dr. R. W. Donnell back in 2008 and haven’t been able to find an earlier use of the term. As much as I try to give credit where credit is due, I have, however, appropriated the term “quackademic medicine” (not to mention its variants, like “quackademia”), used it, and tried my best to popularize it among supporters of science-based medicine. Indeed, one of my earliest posts on this blog was about how quackery has infiltrated the hallowed halls of medical academia, complete with links to medical schools that have “integrative medicine” programs and even medical schools that promoted the purely magic-based medical modalities known as reiki and homeopathy. It’s been a recurrent topic on this blog ever since, leading to a number posts on the unethical clinical trials of treatments with zero or minimal pre-trial plausibility, the degradation of the scientific basis of medicine, and the acceptance of magical thinking as a means of treating patients in all too many medical centers.

One strong candidate for quackademic ground zero, if there can be such a thing for the phenomenon like quackademic medicine, which is creeping up like so much kudzu in the cracks of the edifice of science-based medicine (SBM), is the University of Arizona. U. of A. is, of course, the home of one of the originators of the concept of quackademic medicine and one of its most famous and tireless promoters, Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Weil, as you might recall, has even been the driving force for creating a highly dubious “board certification” in integrative medicine. Sadly, apparently this new board certification has been so popular among physicians wanting to “integrate” a little quackery into their practices, that its first examination has been delayed from May to November 2014, so that the American Board of Physician Specialties can figure out how to accommodate the unexpectedly large number of applicants.

So what happens when a patient arrives at U. of A. for treatment? I found out last week when I received an e-mail, which led to a fairly long e-mail exchange, with a man whose son was diagnosed with leukemia and is being treated at the University of Arizona Cancer Center (UACC). Although this man gave me permission to use his name, I am going to decline to do so because there is a child involved, although anyone involved in his case at U. of A. will likely quickly be able to identify who the man is. It turns out that he is a professor at U. of A. in a humanities department (which is why I’ll refer to him henceforth as the Professor), and, even though he is not a scientist, he clearly knows how to think (which would not be surprising if you knew what department he was in). In his e-mail, he told me how appalled he was at the sorts of treatments being offered to his son:
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Medical Academia, Religion

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When healing turns into killing: religious and philosophical exemptions from parental accountability

Parents have a fundamental right to guide the upbringing of their children protected under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. This includes the choice of medical care for the child. They also have a First Amendment right to the free exercise of their religious beliefs, including the right to care for their children in accordance with the tenets of their religion. In a better world, these rights would be exercised in a manner that is consistent with a reasoned selection of medical care among choices supported by the best available scientific evidence. If, for example, deeply religious parents choose to forego a treatment that had only a minimal chance of extending their child’s life and terrible side effects in favor of palliative care because they believe that their child would be better off in heaven we could all agree that their choice is constitutionally protected.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Religious believers and those whose “philosophy” favors pseudoscience in child medical care (surveys bloviating about the popularity of CAM to the contrary) are in fact a tiny minority of the American population who influence public policy in a manner that far exceeds their actual numbers. This influence allows these special interest groups to cause needless suffering and death among children and their families. As well, their actions siphon off medical and legal resources that could more properly be directed toward the common good when states and medical institutions are put in the position of having to go to court to protect children from their parents. And, by giving parents false choices between a belief in magic and standard medical care, unnecessary complications are introduced into what are already difficult and heart-wrenching decisions by parents who truly want to act in the best interests of their children. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Epidemiology, Legal, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Religion, Vaccines

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“Right to try” laws and Dallas Buyers’ Club: Great movie, terrible for patients and terrible policy

One of my favorite shows right now is True Detective, an HBO show in which two cops pursue a serial killer over the course of over 17 years. Starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, it’s an amazingly creepy show, and McConaughey is amazing at playing his character, Rustin Cohle. I’m sad that the show will be ending tomorrow, but I really do want to see how it ends.

Unfortunately, as much as I like Matthew McConaughey as an actor, he is in part responsible for re-inspiring a movement that has the potential to do profound harm to patients and cancer research. That’s because his other big role over the last year has been in an Oscar-nominated movie, Dallas Buyers Club, where he plays Ron Woodroof, an early AIDS patient who in the 1980s smuggled unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas when he thought he found them effective at alleviating his symptoms, distributing them to fellow sufferers by establishing the “Dallas Buyers Club” while battling the FDA. I haven’t seen the movie, and I really don’t want to, given that, from everything I’ve heard about it, it’s basically the story of a “brave maverick” who bucks the FDA, complete with all the tropes about indifferent bureaucrats who don’t care if these brave patients die. That might not be so bad if it weren’t also riddled with inaccuracies and misinterpretations of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Worse, the real Woodruff rejected the one truly promising drug at the time, AZT, as hopelessly toxic and instead smuggled drugs like Peptide T, which never panned out. Basically, what Woodruff appears to have smuggled as part of his activities for the “Dallas Buyers Club” was a mixture of useless supplements, experimental drugs that were never approved, and a handful of experimental drugs that showed promise. Meanwhile, the movie portrays the FDA as the implacable enemy of these sorts of activities, jackbooted thugs not unlike the stereotype promoted by “health freedom” quacks who don’t like the FDA preventing them from selling their quackery. As far as I can tell without actually seeing the movie, the overall message is a typical uplifting story of an underdog who fights the power and in doing so finds redemption. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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