Most scientific research studies have at least one thing in common: the conclusion section ends with, “further research is warranted.” I’d say it’s about as common as the “talk to your doctor” disclaimer in TV ads for pharmaceutical products. And in a way, they both serve the same purpose. They’re a “CYA” move.
What does “further research is warranted” mean in plain English? I think it can be roughly translated: “My research study is not of the size or scope to fully explain all the phenomena described in this article. Therefore, draw conclusions beyond the data and study methods at your own risk. And yeah, my work is important and cool – so people should study it further.”
Of course, the first two sentences are reasonable – we should always remember not to draw conclusions beyond the information provided by the data we’ve collected (even though that’s about as challenging as getting a beagle not to eat a table scrap in an empty room). The real problem is the third sentence. Is the research promising enough to require further investment? How are we to know if further research is indeed warranted? I would argue that it should not be based solely on the subjective opinions of the researchers nor the popularity of the research topic to the general public. (more…)
Suppose I were to bake you a cake and my ingredient list included the following:
- Baking Powder
- Chocolate icing
What is the problem with the ingredient list? It has integrated inedible and poisonous items into the very fine basic ingredients that make a good cake. This is the exact same problem that the medical profession faces with the “integrative medicine” movement. Insofar as it espouses and promotes well-vetted, healthy ingredients, it is a boon to patients. But when inordinate emphasis is placed on placebos (“sand”) or when dangerous practices (“melamine”) are inserted into the prescription for our patients’ “health and wellness,” that attractive-appearing cake becomes a recipe for disaster.
ED. NOTE: Circumstances have dictated an unexpected change of plans; so you’re in for a treat. Dr. Val Jones is starting two days earlier than previously announced. Beginning next week, her posts will appear regularly on Thursday mornings. Harriet Hall’s post scheduled for today will appear on Thursday this week. Be ready; it’ll be the return of the cholesterol “skeptics.” Now, Dr. Val…
Greetings, everyone. I am a proud new member of the Science Based Medicine blogging team, and have committed to one post each Thursday morning. As part of my “grand entrance” onto the skeptical blogging stage, I was hoping to introduce a new noun into our lexicon. I’ve asked permission from Steve Novella and David Gorski, and they’ve given me a wink and a nod, so here goes:
Shruggie (noun): a person who doesn’t care about the science versus pseudoscience debate. When presented with descriptions of exaggerated or fraudulent health claims or practices, their response is to shrug. Shruggies are fairly inert, they will not argue the merits (or lack thereof) of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) or pseudoscience in general. They simply aren’t all that interested in the discussion, and are somewhat puzzled by those who are.
I’m sure you’ve encountered shruggies in your daily life. They are quite common – in fact, they may actually be in the majority among healthcare professionals. And I have a confession to make — I used to be one myself.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you the story of how I was awakened from my unhealthy indifference toward pseudoscience. (more…)
Is Medical Academia repeating Academia’s history? In a recent essay in a small-circulation, specialized periodical, Academic Questions, Prof. John M. Ellis, emeritus Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, recounts the past 4-5 decades of changes in liberal arts departments in US colleges. (How Preferences Have Corrupted Higher Education, Acad Quest, 2008; 21(2):265-274) One modern academic controversy not needing recounting is the takeover of liberal arts departments by post-modernist theology and the partial takeover of universities themselves by radical politics dating from the 1960s. But as recounted by Prof. Ellis, the fifty-year metamorphosis has not only changed universities, but has produced a branching network of intended and unintended consequences.
We have noted before that medicine is both a science and a practice that reflects current social attitudes and mores. (I minimize the aliquot of art, persisting from prior centuries; cultural influences being a more accurate term.) But the changes in universities now reflect in the normative thinking and mores of the modern medical school – at least a nucleus of them. Thus Dr. Ellis’s observations may be a metaphor or template for a medicine of the next several decades.
“If you’ve done six impossible things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at Milliway’s—the Restaurant at the End of the Universe!”–Douglas Adams
I recently finished reading the book “The Joy of Pi” by David Blatner. There is a chapter about the concept of squaring a circle, also called the quadrature of a circle. The idea is that, with just a ruler and a compass, you construct a square of equal area to a given circle.
It turns out it cannot be done. It is, in this iteration of the multiverse, impossible. Not difficult, or implausible or really hard. Impossible. You cannot square a circle in a finite number of steps given the conditions of using only a ruler and a compass.
That it is impossible does not prevent people from trying. Individuals do derive solutions to squaring the circle, and sometimes the derivation is erroneous, and sometimes they have a solution that requires a new value for pi.
Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Take the circumference of a circle, divide it by its diameter and get the endless, or transcendental, number 3.141592654….(1) That number is part of the fabric of this universe. It is a fundamental part of how life, the universe, and everything is put together (2). It is a curious psychopathology that some people feel that all of known mathematics is wrong, and that they have a solution to an impossible problem and that they have discovered the hither to unknown, one true value of pi as a result.
The blogosphere held no fascination for me before my involvement with sciencebasedmedicine.com. I had checked into a few blogs, and found some capturing attention, allowing exploration of ideas and personal views in greater scope than allowed for in scientific papers. But many seemed not to expand discussion after an original post. When the blogger would describe some series of events or ideas, there would follow a series of pro and con short commentaries, whose authors seemed to enjoy sniping at irrelevant issues. The emotional level rose with each series of exchanges. One had to search for pages with comments that expanded knowledge, and were not just argumentative.Some commenters took off on small details in the original.. Then ensued a series of yes I did – no I didn‘t, you said – I said, you said – I meant, you‘re a blank – you’re a worse blank, and on, as readers know.
I wrote an article or two for an online ‘zine, and the format allowed for extended exchanges, like the blogs. Comments followed a similar pattern. They continued for 2 weeks. Same thing happened when I critiqued traditional Chinese medicine, implausible claims, ethics of “CAM” in editorials in an online journal. Questions there were screened by editors, but I filled more space elaborating answers than I was allowed by the word limit to the original articles. I noted that even news items in online news sources were followed by series of comments, challenges, counterchallenges and on they went, often getting uncomfortably personal. Lost in some of this was the meat of the original article as small point after smaller point appeared.
All this is old stuff to most of you readers, but to me, it was new. And I wondered not only about the format and policies that allowed ongoing sniping, but had to look at my own reactions, often surging in the same direction of telling people off. I keep telling myself not to answer snipes, but the temptation sometimes wins. Too much chance to show cleverness and to enjoy that basic, innate joy of putting it to someone who wrote something that really ticked me off.
The internet is arguably the ultimate expression of democracy and the free market. For the cost of internet access anyone can pull up a virtual soap box and preach to the world. There are no real gatekeepers, and the public can vote with their search entries, clicks, and links. Every point of view can be catered to and every special interest satisfied. Type in any obscure term or concept into Google and see how many hits you get (“banana farming” yielded 1,470,000 hits).
There is potentially a downside to this as well, however. Because there are websites fashioned for every opinion and perspective no one has to venture far out of their intellectual comfort zone. Virtual communities of like-minded individuals can gather and reinforce their prejudices, and to varying degrees keep out contrary opinions. This is harmless when dealing with aesthetic tastes, but can be stifling to intellectual discourse.
On the other hand defining the mission, scope, and character of a blog, website, or forum is necessary to some degree. Every site does not have to be a free-for-all. If biologists want a forum to politely discuss biological topics in a collegial fashion they have the right to create a virtual space in which to do that, and whoever owns and operates the site has the right to mandate whatever rules they wish. Allowing political activists to overrun the site and hijack the conversation would be counterproductive. Like most things a healthy balance probably works best.
Medicine’s ethics and basis in science hang by a thread at times. At least in the US of A. I will present a few examples and illustrate them with correlates from other fields in which decisions with wide effects are sometimes made by the whim of one person. And that’s not just the declaring of war or whatever we call it these days.Start with an anecdote of mine from the mid-1970s or so. I somehow got involved in a dispute with the staff of then Gov. Jerry Brown over his proposal to de-license medical practice. He sent out early holistic medicine vibes and viewed health and medicine as fields open to anyone to practice by simply hanging out a shingle. I asked to meet with my state assemblyman and complained about the situation. I stated that physicians determined what medical practice is. He smiled benevolently and broke the news. “No, doc, we (in state government) do.“
I immediately recognized what he was saying. All licensure is granted by the state, and all regulations and laws referring to each occupation’s license are determined essentially by a majority vote and a governor’s signature. All those heroes in the history of medicine and science not withstanding. It was an awakening.
Jerry Brown’s vision did not materialize and he came to recognize holistic and alternative medicines as so much goofy stuff and quackery, as he later confided at a fund-raiser (yes, I went.)
I sometimes lecture on science-based medicine to my colleagues and one of the most common questions I get is how to deal with a patient who expresses belief in unscientific treatments. The dilemma for the physician is that professionalism requires that we do not confront patients regarding their personal beliefs. We are there to inform and advise, not preach. And yet proper medical care is often hampered by unscientific beliefs on the part of patients.
David wrote previously about a case he reviewed in which a woman with a very treatable early stage of breast cancer opted for “alternative” treatment rather than the standard treatment, which carries a > 93% good outcome. As a result her cancer progressed horribly – but she clung to belief in CAM despite its obvious failure in her case. This story highlighted the fact that giving patients proper medical advice sometime requires confronting their false beliefs.
Unscientific and bizarre medical practices are in vogue and are increasingly infiltrating the medical system through a combination of misguided political correctness, stealth, and apathy. This is exacerbating the dilemma for science-based practitioners who are caught between the imperative to do the right thing in accordance with evidence-based guidelines and the default respect for the patient and the desire to maintain a therapeutic relationship.
In my experience, however, these two goals do not have to be mutually exclusive. An uncompromising but non-judgmental approach works very well.
One of the more annoying duties I used to have several years ago at our cancer center was to “show the flag” at our various affiliates by attending their tumor boards. I say “annoying” not so much because the tumor boards themselves were onerous or even uninteresting but rather because traveling to them used to cut into my already limited time for research, given that these tumor boards were always scheduled on days on which I didn’t have to be in clinic or the operating room. In other words, they always took place on my research days.
One of our affiliates was a nearly an hour and a half drive away, and many of them were close to an hour away. When you add up travel time and the tumor board, that’s easily more than three hours eaten up, all too often right in the middle of the day. In actuality, though, several of the tumor boards themselves were quite good, one of which being the aforementioned one that required nearly a 90 minute drive to reach. (It helped that they served a really nice breakfast there, too, but they also have really stimulating discussion about various cancer cases.) One of the weird things about these tumor boards is that I was viewed as–and I quote–the “outside expert.” This was particularly disconcerting the first year I had the job. There I was, fresh out of fellowship, being looked up to as the “expert” by physicians, many of whom who may have been in practice for 10, 20, or even 30 years. Somehow I managed to muddle through without making too big a fool of myself. These days, years later, I almost even feel as though, for breast cancer at least, I am worthy of the appellation of “outside expert.” Experience does matter, I guess.