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The Huffington Post‘s War on Medical Science: A Brief History

I realize that our fearless leader Steve Novella has already written about this topic twice. He has, as usual, done a bang-up job of describing how Arianna Huffington’s political news blog has become a haven for quackery, even going so far as to entitle his followup post The Huffington Post’s War on Science. And he’s absolutely right. The Huffington Post has waged a war on science, at least a war on science-based medicine, ever since its inception, a mere two weeks after which it was first noticed that anti-vaccine lunacy ruled the roost there. Because I’ve had experience with this topic since 2005, I thought I’d try to put some perspective on the issue, in order to show you just how pervasive pseudoscience has been (and for how long) at the blog whose name is often abbreviated as “HuffPo.”
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Medical Propaganda Films

David Gorski suggested I expand on a comment I left recently on one of his November posts. His subject was the then new documentary movie, “A Beautiful Truth.“ “Truth” is about the Gerson method – the dietary deprivation cum coffee enema cancer treatment developed by Dr. Max Gerson, a refugeee from Germany I the 1930s. His daughter, Charlotte now runs the Gerson Institute in Tijuana, Mexico. Gerson is one of the models for the Gonzales method recently reviewed by Kim Atwood.

I had previously referred to the movie in a prior post (1) (but in a different context. Here I’ll explore the movie from a different angle – with its partners, propaganda documentaries.

David called my attention to “Truth” plus another by the same producer – with trailers on You Tube. When I watched the trailers last year I saw myself interviewed briefly, but could not recall being filmed, or even identify where the scene took place. I had to email Steve Barrett, also in the movie, who reminded me about filmmaker Steve Kroschel’s visits 2-3 years before, although neither did he have strong memory of the interview.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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When Should We Call A Quack A Quack?

It is not uncommon for Science Based Medicine to receive complaints about the tone of our writing. Some people feel that it is indelicate to use the “q” word (for the uninitiated, “q” is for “quack”) when describing practitioners who promote disproven therapies with jubilant fervor. Others believe it unkind to lump “well meaning” alternative medicine experts in with those who are engaged in overtly illegal activities.

We are all affected by the tension between wanting to call a spade a spade and respecting our cultural need to be polite. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this inner conflict is Orac’s Respectful Insolence blog. As the name implies, Orac is both thoughtful and brutally honest – he expresses our communal reticence to make waves, but follows up with a reasoned hostility that is quite understandable, given the circumstances described in each post. Respectful Insolence is fun to read because it is educational, persuasive, and expressive – and it captures how many of us feel about various forms of hucksterism. However, snake oil salesmen and their sympathizers are unlikely to enjoy the blog.

Here at Science Based Medicine, readers find a wide range of expression with a common commitment to science and reason. Just as physicians have different practice styles (some are more nurturing in temperament, others offer “tough love”) so too do we authors vary in tone. For those readers who favor one style over another – I hope you’ll find the voice that suits you and return regularly for more. Please don’t assume that one particular post is representative of the entire blog, and please don’t be offended by the legitimate exasperation of writers who have suffered through decades of observing swindlers swindle.
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Posted in: Cancer, Science and Medicine

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Alternative medicine use and breast cancer

Of all the posts I and my cobloggers have written for SBM over the last 15 months, most provoke relatively few comments. However, a few stand out for having provoked hundreds of comments. The very first post that provoked hundreds of comments was Harriet’s excellent discussion of the International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics. In fact, Harriet seems to be quite good at writing posts that provoke a lot of comment, as another of her posts, specifically the one in which she discussed circumcision, also garnered hundreds of comments. However, to my great surprise, the one post that stands out as having received the most comments thus far in the history of SBM is one that I wrote. Specifically, it was a post I called Death by “alternative” medicine: Who’s to blame?, which has collected an astonishing 611 comments thus far. The topic of the post was a case report that I had heard while visiting the tumor board of an affiliate of my former cancer center describing a young woman who had rejected conventional therapy for an eminently treatable breast cancer and then returned two or three years later with a large, nasty tumor that was much more difficult to treat and possibly metastatic to the bone, which would make it no longer even potentially curable. My discussion centered on what the obligation of a physician is to such patients who utterly refuse the science- and evidence-based medicine that we know to be able to cure them of a potentially fatal disease, and I was not only surprised but somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of the discussion.

Since that post, I’ve always been meaning to take a look at what, exactly, the effect of choosing “alternative” medicine over “conventional” medicine is on the odds of survival for breast cancer patients. Even though intuitively one would hypothesize that refusing scientific medicine and relying on placebo medicine instead would have a detrimental effect on survival, it turns out that this question is not as easy to answer as you might think. For example, if you do a search on PubMed using terms like “alternative medicine,” “breast cancer,” and “survival,” the vast majority of the hits will be studies of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and breast cancer with little reference to what possible effect these therapies might have on survival. I can envision several reasons for this, the first being that–thankfully–relatively few women actually use alternative medicine exclusively to treat their breast cancer. Also, those that do probably drop off the radar screen of their science-based practitioners, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to capture data regarding their outcomes, given that they all too often stick with their alternative healers until the end. True, they may pop up again in their surgeon’s or primary care doctor’s office with huge, fungating tumors, only to be told that they have to undergo chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before any surgery is possible, after which they will often disappear again. Another important reason is that the natural history of breast cancer is extremely variable, from nasty, aggressive tumors that kill within months to indolent, slow-growing tumors that, even when metastatic, women can survive with for several years. (It is, of course, these women who usually show up in “alternative medicine” testimonials, because they can survive a long time with little or no treatment before their tumors progress.)
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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The China Study

One of our readers asked that we evaluate a book I had not previously heard of: The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health, by nutrition researcher T. Colin Campbell, PhD, with his non-scientist son Thomas M. Campbell II. The China Study was an epidemiologic survey of diet and health conducted in villages throughout China and is touted as “the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted.” The book’s major thesis is that we could prevent or cure most disease (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, bone, kidney, eye and other diseases) by eating a whole foods plant-based diet, drastically reducing our protein intake, and avoiding meat and dairy products entirely.

Opinions of the book

There’s a lot of praise for this book on the Internet. It was named VegNews Book of the Year. PETA loves it (not surprisingly). Heather Mills McCartney calls it inspirational. It was featured on Oprah.com and endorsed by two of her favorite doctors: Mehmet Oz and Dean Ornish. Its author was even interviewed on Coast to Coast AM.

But I also found this critical review which makes some excellent points and accuses the authors of misrepresenting the findings of the study. And this commenter on an Amazon.com forum also charges Campbell with misrepresenting the data from the study and points out numerous flaws in his reasoning.

Problematic references

I didn’t look at the praise or criticism of others until after I read the book, and the following represents my independent impressions. I approached the book as I do any book with scientific references: I read until I come across a statement of fact that strikes me as questionable and then I check the references given for the statement. This immediately got me off on the wrong foot with this book. In the first chapter I found the statement:

Heart disease can be prevented and even reversed by a healthy diet. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Nutrition

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An all-too-common breast cancer testimonial for “alternative medicine”

One of the consistent themes of SBM since its very inception has been that, when it comes to determining the efficacy (or lack thereof) of any particular medicince, therapy, or interventions, anecdotes are inherently unreliable. Steve Novella explained why quite well early in the history of this blog, and I myself described why otherwise intelligent people can be so prone to being misled by personal experience and anecdotal evidence. Unfortunately, as I have also demonstrated, it’s not just patients who can allow themselves to be misled by anecdotes, but certain physicians who do not understand the scientific method but in their hubris think that their “personal clinical experience” trumps science, clinical trials, and epidemiology.

None of this is to say that there aren’t frequent instances when applying data from population-based studies to individual patients is problematic. It can indeed be. However, it often goes beyond that, and, indeed, if there is one defining characteristic of a quack that I’ve never failed to find when looking at individual cases, it’s a belief that he is able to identify when a treatment works based on his own personal experience and anecdotes. Unfortunately, it’s not just quacks who sometimes fall prey to this, because humans are cognitively wired to infer causation from correlation. This tendency, which was no doubt adaptive early in our evolution, simply doesn’t work well when it is applied to medicine and science. Without a doubt, it is the key driver, for example, behind the widely believed myth that vaccines somehow cause autism and that chelation therapy and other biomedical quackery can “cure” autism, a view popularized most recently by the very popular but very ignorant Jenny McCarthy in the U.S. and before that by the outright dishonest Andrew Wakefield in the U.K.

One of the other reasons why testimonials for quackery seem convincing is because most people simply do not know enough about disease, be it my specialty (cancer) or any other disease, how it is treated, and what its natural course can be expected to be. That is why, when I came across an example of just such a testimonial, specifically a breast cancer testimonial, I saw what is known as a “teachable moment. This teachable moment occurred on the very popular science blog Pharyngula, written by the ever sarcastic biology professor from Minnesota, P.Z. Myers. It actually surprised me in that the usual topics on Pharyngula include evolution, biology, the pseudoscience known as “intelligent design” creationism, politics, and atheism. P.Z. doesn’t usually dabble much in the realm of medical quackery, but my guess is that he was attracted to this particular piece of pseudoscience because of the religious angle.

Specifically, the quackery under consideration is known as God’s Answer to Cancer (GAC). Basically, it looks a lot like any number of quack electronic devices that promise to cure cancer; examples include Bill Nelson’s Electro Physiological Feedback Xrroid (EPFX) machine (1, 2, 3), Hulda Clark’s parasite zapper, or Alan Back’s Advanced Bio-photon Analyzer. All of these devices promise, in essence, to use low level electrical energy to “boost the immune system” and “replenish your life energy” plus or minus an additional promise to “zap parasites” (Hulda Clark’s unique spin on these devices, in which she claims that all cancer, AIDS, and most other diseases are due to a liver fluke, which her device supposedly “zaps.” Like these devices, the maker of GAC promises vague “immune system boosts,” but with the added twist that he claims that all disease is due to original sin (along, apparently, with the conventional alt-med “toxins,” diminished qi, and uncharacterized immune dysfunction). Amusingly, the Monsignor who created this device also disses Hulda Clark and advocates the use of laetrile and Linus Pauling’s orthomolecular medicine. The main difference is that he claims to have received the design for the device from God through a dream.
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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The Anniversary

I received a surprising morning call several weeks ago

“Wally?”

“This is he.”

“This is Judy V…. I just wanted to call and thank you again for what you did for me. It’s the 35th anniversary of my cancer…“

Judy V. is a physician’s widow. Her husband, a surgical specialist died in his 40s, 20plus years ago.   She had a Stage II breast cancer; the surgeon had done a modified radical, and I was consulted for possible adjuvant chemotherapy.

Thirty-five years ago the standard was simpler. Same for our knowledge of staging and biological behavior. Genomics was not a word yet. Targeted therapy was not a concept. Tamoxifen was the ony estrogen agonist and had just been introduced.  The standard adjuvant therapy was single agent melphalan or its equivalent. But even then, patients had choices. The surgery had probably cured her, but then… Chemo or none.
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Natural versus “natural” in CAMworld

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

From: Through the Looking Glass, and
What Alice Found There
by Lewis Carroll

“How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”

“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

From: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

One of the most powerful weapons in the armamentarium of advocates of the unscientific and implausible medical practices that fall under the rubric of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, even worse, “integrative medicine” (IM), both of which seek to seamlessly “integrate” pseudoscience with science to the point that people start to be unable to tell which is which in order to “complement” effective medicine with placebo-based medicine, is their skill manupulating language. Wally Sampson has harped on this time and time again on this blog, particularly in his masterful fictional (but all too true-sounding) response to the question, “Why would medical schools associate with quackery?” Kimball Atwood has even turned the–shall we say?–”plasticity” with which CAM/IM advocates manipulate language to their advantage into humorous and all-too-infrequently recurring Friday feature. All of us have complained about how CAM/IM advocates have coopted diet and exercise as being somehow “alternative” and are now using that as the “foot in the door” to introduce pseudoscientific quackery like reiki and homeopathy into not just medical schools but to try to persuade the incoming Obama Administration to fund quackery on equal terms with scientific medicine as part of a “reform” designed to “promote health.”

Much of the success, both previous and current, of CAM/IM advocates depends upon language. Just like Humpty-Dumpty, to ideologues like Deepak Chopra, words mean just what they choose them to mean, and, just like the view forced on Winston Smith at the Ministry of Love, two plus two are sometimes five, no matter how much we know they are four. All it takes is viewing science as “just another narrative,” as postmodernist supporters of CAM/IM would like. Once that happens, there is nothing to stop one from viewing CAM/IM as being a “narrative” just as valid as that of science-based medicine. It’s the way “quackery” has been transformed into “unconventional,” later into “alternative,” and most recently “integrative” medicine. It’s all designed to play on the natural American desire to be “fair” and the media’s desire for “balance,” even though it is not fair to give pseudoscience a patina of scientific respectability that it does not deserve or use “balance” to present quackery as though it has equal standing with scientific medicine.

If there is one word that has been corrupted by the CAM/IM movement more than any other, my vote would go the world “natural.” Of course, it’s not just the CAM/IM movement that has molded this word to mean whatever meaning is required for whatever purpose is desired. For decades, the advertising industry has done the same. However, the CAM/IM movement takes it to a new level, or “kicks it up a notch,” as a certain TV chef likes to say.

I came across a perfect example of this in the form of a man named Tony Isaacs.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine

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The Weekly Waluation of the Weasel Words of Woo #9

Resurrection!

Can y’believe it? The W^5/2™, that cesspool of Afflicted Sophistry and Festering Fallacy—not to say that wellspring of Awesome and Absolutely Annoying (Cloying) Alliteration© and that Mother of all Maddening Mixed Metaphors and Sundry Similitudes®—is back! Yup, like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes of near-terminal procrastination, and due to overwhelming popular demand, the W^5/2 is reborn!!! Well, it also might have something to do with yer faithful servant needing some time to put together a real paper or two…naaahh! But what the hay, let’s just dive right in and pretend that nothin’s changed, shall we?

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Posted in: Cancer, Chiropractic, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Humor, Medical Ethics

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How not to win friends and influence people

BLOGGER’S NOTE: The incident described in this post is true, although somewhat embellished to protect the names and identities of the innocent, if you know what I mean. This conversation occurred a few years ago at a large national cancer meeting.

The question caught me by surprise.

While attending a large national cancer meeting, I was having brunch with a friend, a colleague with whom I used to work when I was doing laboratory research, someone whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. She and her husband had brought along two of their oldest and dearest friends, whom they had known for decades, as well as another of my former coworkers from my old lab. We were idly chatting away and eating, when one of the occupational hazards of being a doctor presented itself. Tthe conversation drifted to medical topics. And then it came.

“What do you think of Dr. Gonzalez?”

Ah, hell.
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and the Media

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