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Archive for Critical Thinking

Do two half-truths add up to a complete truth or a complete falsehood?

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I swear that the evidence that I shall give, shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

The interwebs are not a court of law, that is for sure. The whole truth. Interesting idea. I have no idea how applicable Godel’s theorems are outside of mathematics, but from a practical point knowledge is always incomplete. There is too much to know and too little time and brain power to acquire perfect knowledge of a topic.

It is why medicine is a challenge. You have to synthesize all the available data, which is often incomplete. You have to decide what is quality information, what is not, and why, and how a given study or fact fits into the overall picture, on the continuous asymptotic journey towards unobtainable total knowledge. But you try for the whole truth, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Half-truths, partial stories, can be hard to challenge. In part because, well, they are half-true. They have an air of truthiness. It is perhaps much easier to counter an out-and-out lie. Well, maybe not. I’m thinking Wakefield here. I suspect that in having to admit that half-truths have some validity, it renders them more believable.

The world of pseudo-medicine, and pseudo-science, is filled with half-truths. I wonder when I read these half-truths whether the author is deliberately avoiding all the information, especially since the rest of the story often results in the weakening the impact of the half-truth. Paul Harvey could have had a field day with the anti-vaccine literature.

One of the greatest challenge facing young people today, is the large scale availability of half truth’s and manipulated facts
– Oche Otorkpa, The Unseen Terrorist

Influenza

Beware of the half-truth. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half.
– Author unknown

Take “Do Not Believe Everything You Read About Flu Deaths” from the October, 2014 Journal of Advanced Practice Nursing. As best I can tell this is a peer reviewed journal. You know, “peer“, as in “to appear partially or dimly.”

I imagine someone squinting over the top of their glasses at the manuscript, muttering, “that ‘peers to be a paper about influenza deaths. Let’s publish it.”
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Vaccines

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A Scientist in Wonderland

Edzard Ernst is one of those rare people who dare to question their own beliefs, look at the evidence without bias, and change their minds. He went from practicing alternative medicine to questioning it, to researching it, to becoming its most prolific critic. I have long admired his work, and I finally met him in person when we were invited to speak at the same conferences. He shattered my stereotype of the stern, formal, self-important German “Herr Professor Doktor.” He was affable, unassuming, and funny; he was even a jazz musician. I wished I knew more about his history, and my wishes have been granted in the form of his new autobiographical book, A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble.

This is a well-written, entertaining book that anyone would enjoy reading and that advocates of alternative medicine should read: they might learn a thing or two about science, critical thinking, honesty, and the importance of truth.

This is a well-written, entertaining book that anyone would enjoy reading and that advocates of alternative medicine should read: they might learn a thing or two about science, critical thinking, honesty, and the importance of truth.

Edzard Ernst, the early years

Dr. Ernst was born in post-war Germany; his family had suffered greatly during the war and his uncle had been a general in the Waffen SS. He felt slightly ashamed to be German, and as a result he researched and wrote about Nazi health beliefs and medical atrocities so the history of their misdeeds would not be forgotten.

His father was a doctor, his mother an enthusiastic devotee of alternative medicine who subjected him to homeopathy, ice cold baths, and barefoot walks at dawn through wet grass. Early in life, Ernst began to manifest a tendency towards doubt and irreverence, along with an irrepressible sense of curiosity.

Music was his first love. He earned good money when he and his friends spent their summer vacation busking on the beach at St. Tropez, and he had been seriously considering a musical career until his mother persuaded him to study medicine. He earned an MD in Germany, in an environment where alternative medicine was unquestioningly integrated with mainstream medicine. He received hands-on training in acupuncture, autogenic training, herbalism, homeopathy, cupping, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, even leeches. His first job was in a homeopathic hospital where a colleague chose remedies by dowsing with a pendulum. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Clinical Trials, Critical Thinking

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Unfalsifiable Beliefs

sisyphus

As we search for a logo for SBM or the SfSBM, Mark Crislip has been a strong advocate of using an image of Sisyphus, endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again. It’s a bit too self-defeating to be enthusiastic about that suggestion, but it does reflect a common feeling among all of us here at SBM – promoting science can be a frustrating endeavor.

Our frustration reflects a broader phenomenon, that it is difficult to persuade people with facts and logic alone. People tend to prefer narrative, ideology, and emotion to facts. The high degree of scientific illiteracy in the culture presents another barrier.

In recent years psychologists have demonstrated experimentally what we have come to understand through personal experience, that people engage in a host of cognitive defense mechanisms to protect their beliefs from the facts. We jealously guard our world view and are endlessly creative in shielding it from refutation.

A recent series of experiments published by Friesen, Campbell, and Kay in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology demonstrates that one strategy commonly used to protect our beliefs is to render them unfalsifiable, or at least incorporate unfalsifiable elements. (more…)

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Shedding Light on Unreasonable Decisions

BloodPressure2

One of the biggest frustrations for a doctor is when a patient refuses to take science-based medical advice. We would like to believe that giving a patient accurate information will lead him to make good decisions that will improve his health or save his life. But that’s not how it works. Patients reject life-saving surgery and chemotherapy, patients on essential medications are non-compliant, parents reject vaccines for their children…what are these people thinking? Why would anyone in their right mind knowingly reject a treatment that has been proven to increase their chances for survival and health? What could their reasons possibly be?

This ties into a subject we have debated over and over: why do people choose alternative medicine? Many reasons have been suggested: cost and accessibility, the need for control, dissatisfaction with mainstream medicine, the peer pressure of a popular fad, “belonging” to a group of like-minded people, a need for answers, autonomy, health freedom, ideology, rebellion against authority, a need for hope even if it is false hope, giving more importance to stories than to studies, the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, scientific illiteracy, misinformation, superstition, magical thinking…the list goes on. Studies have been done, but we can’t be sure the reasons people give to researchers are the real reasons. There is a problem with the search for reasons: these decisions are not made on the basis of reason. Physician Lisa Rosenbaum has written a beautiful essay in The New England Journal of Medicine entitled “Beyond Belief — How People Feel about Taking Medications for Heart Disease“, that sheds a penetrating light on what is really going on. It made me think of the subject in a whole new way. (more…)

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Mel asks and I do my best to answer.

Several snarks were painfully maimed in the writing of this blog post

Several snarks were painfully maimed in the writing of this blog post

I read a lot of the pseudo-medical websites. The writing is at best pedestrian, often turgid, and, at its worst, incoherent. It is rarely either engaging or clever.

Wit, the clever bon mot, the amusing turn of phrase or retort, is rare at best. So rare I cannot think of an example. It is ironic that those who engage in fantastical treatments are so often lacking in cleverness with language and thought. The closest you get to humor are the painfully-lame cartoons at the Natural News. I am sure that the readers will flood the comments with examples of all the clever writing I have missed in the world of pseudo-medicine just to prove me wrong. Not that the reality-based world is much better. It is the rare author on the internet whose style keeps me coming back for more.

But for some reason I found “Dear Science Based Medicine, Just a Few Questions About Acupuncture” funny and engaging, at odds with most of the purple quasi-paranoid articles I normally read. Just the right amount of chatty snarkiness to be enjoyable, at least for me. So refreshing given the style of the usual pro-acupuncture comments. Your millage may vary. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Critical Thinking, Energy Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Hostility towards scientific consensus: A red flag identifying a crank or quack

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I have yet another grant deadline to deal with, this time for the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, this time around its Breast Cancer Research Program. Unfortunately, that put a high degree of time pressure on me. Fortunately, there’s still stuff in the archives of my not-so-secret other blog that I deem quite appropriate for this blog and that can be updated with minimal effort. If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I refer to my not-so-secret other blog, then it’ll definitely be new to you. If you haven’t been reading that blog for at least four and a half years, it’ll be new to you as well. And even if you have seen it before, I think it’s worth revisiting.

Why? It came up because of an encounter I had on Twitter with Jane Orient, MD, who, as you might recall, is the executive director of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). I’ve written about the AAPS before. You can get the details in the link, but if you don’t have time suffice to say that it is an entire organization of libertarian-leaning “brave maverick doctors” who think Medicare is unconstitutional, don’t believe that the government should have much, if anything, to do with regulating the practice of medicine, and reject evidence-based guidelines as an unholy affront to the independence of the physician. Along the way, the AAPS, through its journal, The Journal of American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (often abbreviated JPANDS), promoted antivaccine views, including the discredited concept that vaccines cause sudden infant death syndrome, HIV/AIDS denialism, and the scientifically unsupported idea that abortion causes breast cancer (a topic I might have to revisit, given the activity promoting it recently).

In any case, two or three weeks ago, I was having a bit of an exchange with Dr. Orient over anthropogenic global climate change (often abbreviated as AGW, for anthropogenic global warming, for short), the well-accepted science that concludes that CO2 generated by human activity is having a serious warming effect on the earth’s climate. As you might expect, she’s not big on this particular scientific consensus. I forgot about it, but then the other day saw this Tweet exchange between Dr. Orient and Ed Wiebe:
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Science and Medicine

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Pesticides: Just How Bad Are They?

3D model of DDT, an insecticide

3D model of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), an insecticide

I think everyone would agree that it would not be a good idea to put pesticides in a saltshaker and add them to our food at the table. But there is little agreement when it comes to their use in agriculture. How much gets into our food? What are the effects on our health? On the environment? Is there a safer alternative?

Where should we look to find science-based answers to those questions? One place we should not look is books written by biased non-scientists to advance their personal agendas. A friend recently sent me a prime example of such a book: Myths of Safe Pesticides, by André Leu, an organic farmer whose opinions preceded his research and whose bias is revealed in the very title. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Critical Thinking, Public Health

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In the Spirit of Choosing Wisely

Oh, loneliness and cheeseburgers are a dangerous mix.
– Comic Book Guy

Same can be said of viral syndromes and Thanksgiving. My brain has been in an interferon-induced haze for the last week that is not lifting anytime soon. Tell me about the rabbits, George. But no excuses. I have been reading the works of Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds. (Really, really like the Miriam Black books). Writers write and finish what they start and only posers use excuses for not completing their work.

Recently I attended an excellent Grand Rounds on some of the reasons doctors do what they do. Partly it is habit. We learn to a certain way of practice early in our training and it carries on into practice and it is not always best practice. Patients also learn from us and have expectations on what diagnostics or treatments they should receive, and that too it is not always the best practice.

So to educate physicians and patients, the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) started the Choosing Wisely initiative. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Critical Thinking, Energy Medicine, Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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Political Science: Chronic Lyme Disease

Tick

New York may soon join a handful of other states who reject science-based guidelines for the treatment of Lyme disease in favor of ideological guidelines based on the vociferous lobbying of patients and “Lyme literate” health care providers. Ignoring science is an unfortunate but well-known legislative phenomenon. I’ve discussed it a number of times on SBM, in the form of Legislative Alchemy, the process by which credulous state legislators turn practitioners of pseudoscience into state-licensed health care professionals, such as naturopaths, chiropractors, homeopaths and acupuncturists.

Lyme disease is an infectious disease transmitted by a tick bite. Its symptoms are a rash, fever, headache and fatigue, although not all symptoms may appear. According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA):

Lyme disease is diagnosed by medical history, physical exam, and sometimes a blood test. It may take four to six weeks for the human immune system to make antibodies against Borrelia burgdorferi and therefore show up in a positive blood test. That is why patients with the Lyme rash usually have a negative blood test and diagnosis is based on the characteristic appearance of the rash. Patients with other clinical manifestations such as Lyme arthritis will usually have a blood test. Anyone who has symptoms for longer than six weeks and who has never been treated with antibiotics is unlikely to have Lyme disease if the blood test is negative.

Treatment with antibiotics usually eliminates the symptoms, but delayed treatment can result in more serious problems. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Health Fraud, Legal, Politics and Regulation

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Ebola conspiracy theories: Same as it ever was

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Does anyone remember the H1N1 influenza pandemic? As hard as it is to believe, that was five years ago. One thing I remember about the whole thing is just how crazy both the antivaccine movement and conspiracy theorists (but I repeat myself) went attacking reasonable public health campaigns to vaccinate people against H1N1. It was truly an eye-opener, surpassing even what I expected based on my then-five-year experience dealing with the antivaccine movement and quacks. Besides the usual antivaccine paranoia that misrepresented and demonized the vaccine as, alternately, ineffective, full of “toxins,” a mass depopulation plot, and many other equally ridiculous fever dream nonsense, there was the quackery. One I remember quite well was the one where it was claimed that baking soda would cure H1N1. Then there was one of the usual suspects, colloidal silver, being sold as a treatment for H1N1. Then who could forget the story of Desiree Jennings, the young woman who claimed to have developed dystonia from the H1N1 vaccine but was a fraud? Truly, pandemics bring out the crazy, particularly the conspiracy theories, such as the one claiming that the H1N1 pandemic was a socialist plot by President Obama to poison Wall Street executives, which was truly weapons-grade conspiracy mongering stupidity. Oh, wait. That last one was a joke. It’s so hard to tell sometimes with these things.

Yes, pandemics and epidemics do bring out the worst in people in many ways, but particularly in terms of losing critical-thinking abilities. This time around, five years later, it’s Ebola virus disease. To the average person, Ebola is way more scary than H1N1, even though H1N1, given its mode of transmission, had the potential to potentially kill far more people. Now that cases of Ebola virus disease have been reported in the US, the panic has been cranked up to 10 in certain quarters, even though the risk of an outbreak in the US comparable to what is happening in West Africa is minimal. We’ve seen quackery, too, such as homeopaths seriously claiming that they can treat it and quacks advocating high-dose vitamin C to “cure” Ebola. The über-quack Mike Adams is selling a “natural biopreparedness” kit to combat Ebola and pandemics, while the FDA is hard-pressed to track down all the quacks, such as hawkers of “essential oils,” who—of course!—also think that their wares can cure Ebola. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Politics and Regulation, Vaccines

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